Building Problem-Solving Skills in Toddlers and Preschoolers

Provide opportunities for different types of experiences – nature walks, visits to the park, trips to the zoo. Talk to your child about what you see along the way and remember to point out things from your child’s level. Everything is new and exciting! The more experiences your child has, the more he is learning about his world.

Schedule opportunities for your child to play with other children during play dates, trips to the park, childcare, or preschool. When he interacts with other children, your child will learn negotiation and social problem solving.

Support your child to resolve his own conflicts through gentle guidance: validate his feelings, and model appropriate words to use when he gets stuck! For example: “Do you want that toy? We have to ask Martin for a turn.” Some children may need you to model the exact words to use, particularly in new situations. Remember to model words that match your child’s developmental level of language. Eventually, through practice, your child will learn to use these skills in many situations and settings. As your child develops mastery of social interactions skills, you can provide less and less support.

Encourage your child to think independently by asking open-ended questions. For example: “I can see that it makes you very upset when he takes your toy. What should we do?” In this example, you are guiding your child to create her own solution and there is no “right” answer. Provide choices for your child when he is stuck. For example: “Do you want to ask him for it, or do you want to play with something else?”

Asking open-ended questions or questions that do not have a specific answer also helps foster back-and-forth conversations. This will promote creative and independent thinking. For example: “What do you think the monkeys do all day at the zoo?” There are a number of possible responses your child may give that will promote conversation.

To encourage his self-expression, limit asking your child questions you already know the answer to.

Encourage your child to participate in open-ended activities, such as art projects, construction with blocks and cardboard boxes, pretend play with dress-up clothes and props, or a hide-and-seek game with you. Allow time for your child to play with favorite toys that are matched to his developmental level, but remember that you are always the best toy!

Tips to encourage independence:

  • When your child encounters a “problem,” such as a toy breaking, or difficulty turning on a toy, give him time to work out the problem independently. Children are motivated by a little frustration to use their problem-solving skills.
  • Try to catch your child before he becomes too frustrated and gives up on solving the problem. Read your child’s cues. When you see his frustration increase, provide the least amount of support you can that still allows your child to achieve his goal. For example: Rather than pushing the button for him, turn the toy to a position that will allow him to push a button himself. Or, rather than handing the toy to him, move it a little closer to the end of the couch so that he can reach it himself. This is how to build your child’s self-confidence and self-esteem.
  • Remember that encouraging self-reliance and independence is especially important for children with special needs. We never want to do for children what they can learn to do for themselves.
  • If your child has delays in his communication, encourage him or her to use gestures to indicate what he wants, and to participate in achieving his goal.

Problem Solving » Links & Resources

Greenspan, S.I., with Breslau Lewis, N. (1999). Building Healthy Minds: The Six Experiences that Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.