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Problem Solving

two young children build with blocks

About this Video

This Early Learning Moment provides an overview of the Problem Solving section of the Illinois Early Learning Guidelines for Children Birth to Age 3. This section describes how infants and toddlers learn to solve problems and consider the results of their actions. As they develop new skills, they build understanding about the world around them. As children grow, they are more and more able to find solutions to the tasks, questions, and challenges they encounter throughout the day.


Explanation of the Problem Solving subsection

As children grow, they learn about their world. Infants learn their actions have an effect on others. For example, when children cry when they are hungry, they learn their caregiver will respond to them. As they mature, they experiment with different ways to solve problems, using trial and error. As children’s cognitive skills mature, problem solving becomes natural for them. The Illinois Early Learning Guidelines for Children Birth to Age 3 presents the following indicators for children in the area of problem solving, which is part of the Approaches to Learning domain. These indicators describe problem solving skills, behaviors, and knowledge that children exhibit during the age ranges listed.

Indicators for Children

Birth to 9 months

  • 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 high chair 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

7 to 18 months

  • 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

16 to 24 months

  • 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

21 to 36 months

  • 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

Setting Up for Success

There are many ways caregivers can set up the environment so a child can be successful. Caregivers can also interact with children in ways that will support their development.

Caregivers can set the stage for interaction by:

  • Sitting close to the child so interactions are possible
  • Providing objects that are appropriate to the child’s age and development
  • Physically supporting the child to allow interaction

Caregivers can maintain the child’s interest and attention by:

  • Showing interest in the child
  • Encouraging the child
  • Responding to and being sensitive to the child’s emotions
  • Introducing new activities when needed

Caregivers can take turns by:

  • Responding to the child’s initiations
  • Establishing routines
  • Letting the child know that a response is expected and waiting for a response
  • Imitating the child and waiting for a response

Caregivers can match and follow by:

  • Observing the child and joining in the activity/interaction
  • Following the child’s lead
  • Commenting on the child’s activities

Caregivers can support learning by:

  • Elaborating on communication attempts
  • Adding new actions or elements to known routines
  • Balancing support with expectations
  • Presenting “dilemmas” for the child to solve

The Illinois Early Learning Guidelines for Children Birth to Age 3 uses the term problem solving to describe a child’s approach to exploring and interacting with the world. Very young children use vocalizations for early interactions and soon discover this has an impact on their world. Later, gestures and trial and error are used to solve problems. Increasingly complex interactions with others and active exploration of objects allow children to discover solutions to the problems that occur.

Self-Assessment and Reflection

We have watched Alicia, Devan, and Max play. We have considered how the teachers supported their learning, set up an environment that promoted their interest in play, and helped them solve problems. Now, consider your interactions with children.

Does your space have:

  • Materials children can choose and reach independently?
  • Enough materials for children to share?
  • Pictures to help children find things and put them away?
  • Cozy spaces for quiet play and access to spaces that allow energetic movement, such as the outdoors or a gym?
  • Spaces for children to be together and places to be alone?

Are you ready to:

  • Observe and consider the reasons behind children’s behavior?
  • Watch and wait, but provide help and encouragement if needed?
  • Take turns in play and conversation with children?
  • Follow children’s ideas in play?

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers
  • Faculty / Trainer

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related IEL Birth to Three Guidelines:
Reviewed: 2021