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Children attempt a variety of strategies to accomplish tasks, overcome obstacles, and find solutions to tasks, questions, and challenges.

Children build the foundation for problem-solving skills through nurturing relationships, active exploration, and social interactions. In infancy, children learn that their actions and behaviors have an effect on others. For example, children cry to signal hunger to their caregivers; in turn, their caregivers feed them. Caregivers’ consistent responses to children’s communication attempts teach children the earliest forms of problem solving. Children learn that they have the ability to solve a problem by completing certain actions. Children build this knowledge and translate it into how they interact and problem-solve in future situations.

Children discover that their actions and behaviors also have an impact on objects. They learn that certain actions produce certain results. For example, children may bang a toy over and over as they notice the sound that it makes. This behavior is intentional and purposeful; children learn that they have the ability to make something happen. As they get older, children will experiment with different ways to solve problems, such as moving puzzle pieces in different ways to place them correctly. They will use trial and error to find solutions to the tasks they are working on, and use communication skills to ask or gesture for help from caregivers.

By 36 months, children are able to decrease the amount of trial and error they use when solving problems. Their cognitive skills are maturing and they are able to use logic and reasoning when working through challenges. Increased attention allows children to focus for longer periods of time when working through challenges. Children still depend on their caregivers for help, but are likely to attempt problem solving on their own before asking someone for help.

Birth to 9 months

Children are building the foundation for problem solving through active exploration and social interaction.

Indicators for children include:

  • Focuses on getting a caregiver’s attention through the use of sounds, cries, gestures, and facial expressions
  • Enjoys repeating actions, e.g., continues to drop toy from highchair after it is picked up by a caregiver or sibling
  • Communicates the need for assistance through verbal and/or nonverbal cues, e.g., pointing, reaching, vocalizing

Strategies for interaction

  • Respond thoughtfully and promptly to the child’s attempts for attention
  • Provide interesting and age-appropriate toys and objects for exploration
  • Engage and interact with the child frequently during the day

7 months to 18 months

Children begin to discover that certain actions and behaviors can be solutions to challenges and obstacles they encounter. Children also recognize how to engage their caregiver(s) to assist in managing these challenges.

Indicators for children include:

  • Repeats actions over and over again to figure out how an object works
  • Begins to recognize that certain actions will draw out certain responses, e.g., laughing and smiling will often result in an adult responding in the same manner
  • Attempts a variety of physical strategies to reach simple goals, e.g., pulls the string of a toy train to move it closer or crawls to get a ball that has rolled away

Strategies for interaction

  • Demonstrate how to try things in different ways and encourage the child to do the same, e.g., using a plastic bucket as a drum
  • Gently guide the child in discovering and exploring, while allowing him or her enough independence to try new things
  • Respond thoughtfully and promptly to the child’s communication attempts

16 months to 24 months

Children have an enhanced capacity to solve challenges they encounter through the use of objects and imitation. Children may take on a more autonomous role during this stage, yet, reach out to caregiver(s) in most instances.

Indicators for children include:

  • Imitates a caregiver’s behavior to accomplish a task, e.g., attempts to turn a doorknob
  • Increases ability to recognize and solve problems through active exploration, play, and trial and error, e.g., tries inserting a shape at different angles to make it fit in a sorter
  • Uses objects in the environment to solve problems, e.g., uses a pail to move numerous books to the other side of the room
  • Uses communication to solve problems, e.g., runs out of glue during an art project and gestures to a caregiver for more

Strategies for interaction

  • Validate and praise the child’s attempts to find solutions to challenges
  • Narrate while assisting the child in figuring out a solution, e.g., “Let’s try to turn the puzzle piece this way”
  • Provide the child with opportunities to solve problems with and without your help; minimize the possibility for the child to become frustrated
  • Respond to the child’s communication efforts

21 months to 36 months

Children begin to discriminate which solutions work, with fewer trials. Children increasingly become more autonomous and will attempt to first overcome obstacles on their own or with limited support from caregiver(s).

Indicators for children include:

  • Asks for help from a caregiver when needed
  • Begins to solve problems with less trial and error
  • Refuses assistance, e.g., calls for help but then pushes a hand away
  • Shows pride when accomplishing a task
  • Uses increasingly refined skills while solving problems, e.g., uses own napkin to clean up a spill without asking an adult for help

Strategies for interaction

  • Follow the child’s lead and pay attention to his or her cues when assisting in a task
  • Share in the child’s joy and accomplishments
  • Model and narrate problem-solving skills through play
  • Provide the child with blocks of uninterrupted time to work on activities
  • Be available for the child and recognize when he or she needs guidance

Real World Story

Sebastian, who is 25 months old, is engaged in a fine-motor activity provided by his caregiver. He is holding large, plastic tweezers and is attempting to use them to pick up big, fuzzy balls off a plastic plate and move them into a plastic cup. He is holding the plastic tweezers in one hand, and holds the plate steady on the table. He repeatedly tries to use one hand, but cannot pinch the tweezers tightly enough to pick up one of the balls. Sebastian pauses, looks around, and picks up the balls with his thumb and forefinger.

Holding the plastic tweezers in one hand and the ball in the other, Sebastian places the ball in the tweezers and then pinches it closed. He moves it over to the plastic cup and drops it inside. He then grabs another fuzzy ball and places it in the tweezers. Again, he pinches it tightly and transfers it to the cup. Sebastian engages in the same method until all the fuzzy balls on his plate are now inside his cup. Once he is done, he empties out the cup onto the plate and starts all over. After successfully completing the process again, he holds out his full cup toward his caregiver, Maria. She sees him, smiles, and gives two thumbs up. Sebastian grabs his cup and walks over to her. He hands Maria the cup and walks away from the table.

Discover how this Real World Story is related to:

THIS EXAMPLE HIGHLIGHTS how children use physical trial and error to solve problems. Sebastian is not successful in his initial attempts to pick up the small objects with his tweezers. However, he pauses to think about possible ways to work on this problem, and then changes his process. Instead of pinching the tweezers to grab the ball, he places the ball in between the tweezers and then pinches it closed. This is easier for him, as he is still developing the fine motor skills necessary to be able to complete this task. Once he realizes he is successful in accomplishing his goal, he engages in this task until he has finished placing every ball on his plate into the cup. He then repeats the activity all over again. Sebastian’s ability to successfully problem solve builds his self-confidence. Maria’s positive acknowledgment of his accomplishment further supports his social and emotional development. A positive self-concept and increasing self-confidence is very important for Sebastian’s future learning and overall healthy development.

Reviewed: 2012