4 Ways to Raise Thinkers

ThinkingBrrrr!  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.

ChillyHow, exactly, do we raise children who think?  Here are four suggestions.

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.

Click on the image to enlarge.  Right-click to save this poster to your desktop and print it for a reminder.

Click on the image to enlarge. Right-click to save this poster to your desktop and print it for a reminder.

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?”
Child: “Yes!”
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! ………………………………

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like:
It’s Complicated
In Search of a Beetle
Morning Glories and Dulcimers




Categories: Emergent Curriculum, Emotional Development, Negotiating, Problem Solving, Wisdom | Tags: , , , , | 20 Comments

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20 thoughts on “4 Ways to Raise Thinkers

  1. Sophia C

    I would also add that if we want our children to know that the process is just as important as the result that we need to praise the process as much as the results. You modeled that at the end “You worked hard! That was a tough job, but you did it!”. Notice it wasn’t a blanket you are so great; you’re praising the effort put forth by the child, not the child directly. I find that as we take the time to notice the effort “I see that you worked hard on your picture” or “I like the wide strokes that you made with the crayon” rather than, or at least in conjunction with “What a pretty picture, you are such a great artist”, that children are more likely to work hard and think things through rather just just taking short-cuts to achieve an end product. When I praise my child on his thoroughness in completing every part of a job, he is more likely to be thorough the next time than if I just praise his amazingness simply for finishing the task (“Thanks for making sure you got every part of the mirror, you worked hard and the mirror looks great” vs. “You finished the mirror, you are so awesome.”). I don’t know if that made sense. But for us the way we praise our children and the things they are praised for, has made a huge difference in the way they think things through. As big as or larger than the difference made by your other thoughtful suggestions, depending on the child (I have one that is driven by praise/approval/recognition more than my other two).

  2. Pingback: There is No Savior Coming – janetkwest

  3. Trista

    I’d love to read this post, but there’s not enough contrast between the black text and the green background. Could you change this? Please!

  4. Stephanie

    My son is not quite 2 and he gets so frustrated with things! He cries about it but does not quite understand how to ask for help yet. I usually wait and see if he can do it and try to communicate suggestions and encouragement, and sometimes it works. Your suggestions are helpful, I will just need to figure out how to apply them to a toddler🙂

    • Toddlers are capable of understanding many things – the more you talk with him and involve him the process, the more he will grow into these skills! Best of luck, Emily!

      • Stephanie

        I do try, and he tries, too.🙂 Yesterday he was trying to put one of his little trains into the ‘cleaning’ shop that came with and he could not get it through the door. He had it sideways. I asked if he was okay, he kept trying. He then handed the train to me, and I gave it back and suggested he turn it. Then, he still could not do it so I guided his hand to help and he was so happy when it worked. That little moment made my day.🙂

      • What a touching example! Thank you for taking the time to share! (And sorry my response is so delayed!)

  5. JB

    This is great! Thank you very much! I was wondering how to help my 4 year old that wants me to do everything for her. I tell her she can do it, but often becomes a struggle with tears involve. This is a good approach to make her feel I’m there for her.

  6. Watching kids work at opening packages (like granola bars) is for me what watching kids struggle with puzzles is for you. Sometimes I have to leave the room…😉

  7. Emily, I taught a workshop last night on cognitive development in preschool – wish I had had this post from you to share. Spot on. Thanks for the examples of how to scaffold, too– somehow a hard thing to TALK about— better DEMONSTRATED.

  8. I love this! I have espoused the idea “Its not the product, its the process” for years! Fully, in my heart, believe in it. However, I recently had a “ligthbulb” moment and saw the importance of the product working itself out right in front of me. Yes the process is more important (and letting kids have the time and flexibility to “process” in their own unique way) but the product is also important. We want kids to come away with certain skills learned and concepts understood. How they get there and what they create as their finished product should be allowed variance but the product still is important as it shows how well the child “got it.”

    • Hello! I think an important distinction to be made is the age of the child. Young children can feel a great deal of pressure over a pre-established product and older children will sometimes find an end-goal helpful. It also depends on the purpose of the task. If the task is to learn to cut with scissors, than coloring or gluing wouldn’t be helpful. Then again, I’m always curious to know who is setting the agenda for the products and determining the skills to be mastered.🙂 You bring up a good point, though, sometimes products help children develop skills they need. Thank you for sharing!!

  9. Love it! I love your thoughtful balance between refusing to help and doing everything for children. I have seen parents and care providers lean toward either end of the spectrum, and it seems that the immediate gains (trying to teach the child to do things on things on her own and be independent; or get done quicker and the child is not frustrated) do not pay off in the long run. As you point out, it seems that often these approaches manifest in a refusal to help anyone with their problems (pull yourself up by your own bootstraps!) or children that lack the basic motivation, motor skills, and creativity to solve problems and take care of themselves. Thank you – this is so helpful!

    On another note, do you ever travel places and provide keynote lectures for conferences or training for childcare centers/early childhood organizations?

    • Thank you so much for your comments. I appreciate your thoughtful response. Yes, I am always eager to travel and teach. I provide thoughtful and engaging professional development for educators as well as parent groups. I present keynotes and breakout sessions and tailor my presentations to the needs of each particular group. Here is a link to my speaking/teaching page where you will find a list of my current classes: https://abundantlifechildren.com/workshops/. Thank you! And please feel free to pass my information along to anyone who is coordinating trainings in your area. Emily

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