Play problems away

Problem-solving skills are important for mathematical and scientific thinking, but they also help children—and adults—tackle day-to-day challenges.

By Carolyn James, Ph.D.

LeapFrog Literacy Expert

As the literacy development expert on LeapFrog’s Learning Team, Carolyn ensures that the curricular design in LeapFrog products is grounded in the latest educational research. Before joining LeapFrog, Carolyn was a reading professor at Sacramento State University, a curriculum developer for the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, and a teacher in the San Francisco bay area. She earned her doctorate in educational psychology at Michigan State University.

Most people recognize that problem solving is an important skill for mathematical and scientific thinking. But problem-solving skills and strategies also help children—and adults—tackle day-to-day challenges. Problem solving can help in developing a persuasive argument or solving an engineering or design challenge. Good problem solvers use creative, flexible thinking and can apply problem-solving strategies to art, math, writing, social situations and more.

Researchers and educators typically talk about two aspects of problem-solving: 1) The logic, reasoning, and cognitive skills underlying problem solving abilities, and 2) the strategies and process of solving a problem. Whether they know it or not, good problem solvers go through a mental process consisting of several steps: 

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Examine the facts or attributes of the problem.
  3. Apply knowledge, tools and skills toward a solution.
  4. Evaluate the solution and outcomes.

Educators understand that the underlying reasoning skills need to be coupled with learned strategies and techniques to facilitate the problem solving process.

Life provides numerous opportunities to help children recognize and approach problems in flexible and strategic ways. Through role play and pretend play, you can help your child become a super-problem solver: 

  • Share the wealth. Turn a common challenge—sharing resources—into an opportunity to build problem solving skills. As your child takes on the role of the “fair-share superhero,” have her determine some solutions for sharing a valued commodity in your household such as a beloved toy, computer time, or a favorite seat in the family car. Help her select a solution and evaluate its effectiveness.
  • Clean up the kingdom. As your child takes on the part of ruler of his bedroom “kingdom,” help him identify ways to keep this royal space organized and pleasant. Help him consider how a proud and benevolent king might want to maintain a space that is both well-equipped and easy to maneuver. Explore a number of approaches and help your child determine which one is both effective and realistic to maintain.
  • Build a peace-maker. With your child, identify a common conflict she encounters with a sibling or friend. Next, prompt her to take on the role of a fairy godmother or wise grandma and brainstorm creative ways to resolve the conflict. Encourage your child to choose one possible solution and try it out the next time the conflict arises.