Brrrr! It’s chilly where we are right now. Considering I wrote a post about muddy play in atypical warm weather (almost!) one year ago today, I’m taking full advantage of our (cold!) seasonal offerings. The crew arrived this morning with a new soft blanket of snow waiting. The temperatures are warm enough that with the right gear, we can spend some time outside.
A trio of children headed for the top of our hill with the sled, eager to try it out. When they reached the top and sat on the platform, they rocked and rocked, but could not displace the weight enough to head down. At one point a child called to me, “How do you get down?” (You might have trouble hearing over my son who is telling me he’s finished with his spray bottle.) More than actually looking for me to jump in and solve the quandary, I think she was verbalizing her mental thought process. Without waiting for an answer, she jumped off the sled and began pushing from behind, asking a friend to get off to lighten the sled. What unfolded next surprised us all:
What a sophisticated thought process, working with concrete principles of physics and motion. As I watched this sledding adventure, I thought about thinking. Specifically, what adults can do to foster the creative thinking and problem solving skills of the children in our lives. Had I stepped in to help find a solution, I would have deprived this trio a chance to think.
1. Time. Children benefit from long stretches of time to work with a problem. As long as a child’s frustration is not interfering with his process, I observe rather than becoming involved. As much as possible, early care settings should be open-ended, with large blocks of time left for children to make choices. Rich, open environments support a child’s creative thinking.
2. Sit on your hands and zip your lips. My personal challenge is puzzles. I love puzzles. Love. Puzzles. Except when I am observing a young child trying to master a puzzle. Even writing about it makes my heart beat quicker. (We all have our areas, right?) In my mind, I hear myself, “If you just turned that one piece a little more like this…yes…that’s right…oh, and flip this one like that…no, like that…yes…you’ve got it!” But, I sit on my hands and zip my lips, letting children work at their own pace and with their own unique process. I only involve myself when their frustration level indicates that I’m needed. (See #4)
3. Encourage the process, not the product. If the end result is pre-determined, children feel constrained and defeated in their thinking. They are less likely to engage creatively. If the process holds value, children learn that their efforts and rich thinking patterns are valuable. When a set product is the goal, creating room for flexibility within the product is helpful.
4. Help, just enough, but not too much. When children grow frustrated with a difficult task, they are learning. Coming in to rescue them at the slightest sign of frustration communicates a message about the process of being frustrated. Think about it: as a child struggles, they are learning to manage the inner emotion of struggling. If I come in to “save” that child from struggling, I inadvertently teach the child that struggle is to be avoided. At the same time, if I don’t help when I can, I am modeling unhelpfulness. Sometimes, their “I can’t do it!” is signaling a need we can’t see, one that is deeper than the task at hand. Also, when children have reached a high level of frustration, they lose their ability to think critically, which undermines their thought process.
The solution lies in the right amount of help, a magical place where the child feels supported in his efforts with the skills to be successful. I think about degrees of help, and I begin with the least invasive. As a transition between each stage, and as a way to check in with the child, I ask, “Would you like help?” Often, children will struggle loudly, and still want to work independently, so it’s important for me to get some sign that the child actually wants my help.
Step 1: Move close to the child who is struggling, and offer empathy.
Step 2: Give verbal supports.
Step 3: Model the process.
Step 4: Do the task for or with the child.
I offer these examples, not as a blueprint, but as a guide. The exact language is less important than actually seeing how you might take small steps along the path of helpfulness.
Example 1: A child is working on solving a puzzle. He is getting visibly frustrated with a stubborn cat paw. You notice from across the room, and move closer.
Adult: “I see you are doing a difficult job.” Child continues to struggle.
Adult: “Would you like help?”
Adult: “If you rotate the paw around, it might fit in.” The child continues unsuccessfully.
Adult: “Try like this.” You can move your hand as if you are holding the puzzle piece without actually holding the puzzle piece. This way, the child can see what you mean by ‘rotate the piece’. The child works, and still can’t get it. He is growing louder and louder in his frustration.
Adult: “Can I put my hand over yours to see if we can do it together?”
Example 2: A child tries to take her sweatshirt off.
Child: “Can you take my sweatshirt off?”
Adult: “You want your sweatshirt off. I can keep you company while you try.” Sometimes, children want to know they are still connected to the adults in their lives, even though their skills are becoming more and more independent.
Child: “I can’t do it.”
Adult: “You can try. I’ll stay close in case you need more help.” The child works, frustrated.
Child: “I can’t do it!”
Adult: “Try this. Hold it at the bottom and pull it over your head.” As I give these verbal instructions, I might touch the bottom hem of the sweatshirt to give an extra cue.
Child: “I can’t do it.”
Adult: “If you pull it from the bottom, you might be able to get it over your head.” This time, I will model the actions with my body, as if I was taking my own shirt off. The child struggles, wriggles, and is finally successful. Adult: “You worked hard! That was a tough job, but you did it!”
Do you have tips for raising children who think critically? Leave me some ideas in the comments below! ………………………………