Even since my oldest daughter was about four months old, we have tried to parent in a way that elicits critical thinking. Because, for us, it is important that we are raising children to problem solve and not be 100% dependent upon us. And in the end, we have encouraged independence in our toddler and taught her to persevere and think through each problem she encounters in her day, no matter how big or small.
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Today, out of frustration, I muttered under my breath that I couldn’t find my phone. In reality, I was grumbling to myself, but my toddler heard and exclaimed “Momma! Let me help you with that. I can find it.”
It was a simple problem to be solved. She went through the typical places she’s seen my phone and even asked me where I saw it last. Wait. A two-year-old did this?!
Then I thought about all the ways we have taught her to problem solve and think rationally even as a toddler. I started seeing the light bulb moments for her that we may have fostered, but never taught. I began paying attention to our interactions more closely and realized that she’s was truly an out of the box thinker. And in a world with such rigid parameters, she offers new insight to old situations.
- Like when I couldn’t find a step stool to reach the top cabinet, my two year old said “No problem momma. Use my learning tower!”
- Or when her sister was trying to touch the electrical outlet and I was moving her hand over and over again, my oldest gently said “Maybe we should get a toy for her to play with instead”.
On any given day I can sit in the living room and watch my toddler move around the house as if she owns it and is in charge of everything in it. I see and hear solutions to problems that work even if they’re unorthodox or different.
Listen to my podcast episode on raising out-of-the-box thinkers
I see her finding ways to turn on lights, thinking through scenarios, and making what initially seemed impossible, possible. Without actually teaching her to do so, she has learned the basics of using simple machines like levers and inclined planes. She sees potential in ever situation and she uses the tools around her to accomplish tasks.
She is very self-sufficient.
She knows her limits and also knows the boundaries that we have set for her. Because we have chosen to raise her in way that encourages independence and problem solving, sometimes we also have to try to be one step ahead of her. Because even at 18 months and younger, she was finding ways to get into drawers and reach things like the scissors even placed on a high shelf. (Therefore, part of encouraging critical thinking, problem-solving, and independence is teaching her safety, dangers, and hazards.)
And while we haven’t taught her actions, we have facilitated moments throughout her childhood to help her solve solutions not whine about outcomes. So how did we do it? We started as a baby!
How to teach a baby critical thinking
These strategies are best applied to children 4-12 months and older
In order to raise children to be problem solvers and learn to think about situations critically, they should get an early start. Now many of you might be reading this thinking “I am already past this point” and that’s ok! Obviously, the earlier the better because a child begins learning patterns even as a newborn. For instance a new baby understands that if they cry, they get picked up. If they are hungry, they eat. Simple patterns mean better long-term understanding.
Once our oldest was 4 months are starting to sit up and be more aware and a little bit more physically independent, there were strategies we implemented to encourage her effort for more independence. Not only that, but many concepts taught in this time period also are important for safety.
- Attach toys to the highchair with elastic, yarn, or shoe strings. We also had a clasp necklace that we attached to the highchair. Every time she sat in the high chair, she would toss toys off of it and then get upset she had nothing left to play with. So we attached everything to the sides. Then, when she threw something off the tray, we would walk over and say “Look, we can pull it back up by the string!”. After a few repetitions of this, she began catching on and would fish for it herself. (Please note: please keep it short enough that it doesn’t become a choking hazard).
- Teach your babies to use their tummies and feet first to dismount off the couch and down stairs. Well before she started crawling, our oldest was still very mobile. To ensure she wasn’t rolling and falling off of the couch, we would swing her legs to the edge and then place her in the floor. That way when she needed to do it herself, she knew how to do it safely. When she was still really little there was a stool placed under her so she would look for the stool first.
- Strategically place a padded wooden stool by the sofa. We learned very quickly that teaching a baby to get down off the couch also mean they would want back up. So as she got older as could go up and down, she did. All of this was without prompting and simply from placing the stool by the couch. (We made sure it was padded because there are still bound to be accidents).
- Play with self-correcting and intuitive (puzzle-like) toys. Learning concepts like object permanence, how to stack from big to little, and placing the correct size or shape object in the correct position can help kids conceptualize problem-solving. (The toy pictured is part of a knobbed cylinder set). If it doesn’t fit or the tower doesn’t stand, then they have to work towards making it work.
Encouraging Creative Problem Solving in Toddlers & Preschoolers
- Always positively encourage creativity. When we visited family who had a small slide in their living room, our daughter fell in love. The following weeks when we were home, she would ask to slide and would make her own “slides”. This became our legs, a chair she turned upsidedown, and a ramp she made out of the lid of our ottoman. We positively encouraged this creativity to make do with what she had because it has translated into confidence to find creative solutions in other areas of her life.
- Give choices instead of open-ended offers. Encouraging children to see the choices is important. It helps them see that when there is a problem, that they can find a solution.
- When your child runs into a problem, ask critical questions. When my daughter comes to me and says she is hungry I will always ask what she wants to eat. Instead of getting it for her I will proceed to ask her where the food she wants is. If it’s on the counter, I will ask if she can reach it. If she says no, I will ask if she tried using a stool. Similarly if it’s in the fridge, I will ask her if she tried to get it herself and if she did what problems she encountered. Especially because we encourage independence through a child-size home, about 85% of what she wants, she can get herself. In the end, if she can’t it’s because we don’t want her to have full access or she has to think it through by using a stool, getting into the dishwasher, etc..
- Explore ways to ameliorate difficult tasks. Even when she started crawling and was only 8 months old, our oldest was troubleshooting how to open and close doors safely. We had told her to be careful and to not use her fingers on the edges of the door. At the time, we had a door that had the brackets from a mirror being hung there and she began using those to close the door. As she got older and was walking and standing, she would open the door from the other side with a belt that was hanging from the back of it. And now, we even have door grips to help. It’s simple things like this that you can help your child explore ways to make themselves a bit more self-sufficient.
- Guide the child through the process. Instead of jumping up to do everything your child asks, find ways to talk them through the process. For instance, getting milk in our home is now something our toddler does almost exclusively by herself. She used to ask for it and we would ask her if she had a cup. Then when she would get one we would ask if she knew where the milk was. She would get the fridge open and get the milk. Now, if she wants milk, she will ask and without prompting if we say yes, she will bring a cup and the carton to wherever we are.
- Don’t be afraid to let your child struggle. I most definitely do not want to raise an entitled child and I want my kids to know I will be there for them, but they are fully capable! So as frustrating as it is to watch them struggle, sometimes it’s the most rewarding for both of you. Our toddler peels her own oranges, opens her own wrappers, cracks open her own pistachios, and more. And on top of that, she has learned to throw her trash away and throw dishes into the sink.
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Kara is an author and advocate for positive, grace-filled parenting. She is homeschooler to her 4 children living in Boston, MA and believes in creative educational approaches to help kids dive deeper into a rich learning experience. She has her degree in Secondary Education & Adolescent Childhood Development and is passionate about connecting with and helping other parents on their journey to raise awesome kids!