Tips to Develop Critical Thinking Skills in Young Children

I have been often asked what are the best ways to develop problem solving and critical thinking skills in young children. Here are some of my suggestions:

Preschool children

Some of the fun activities for pre-schoolers are various board games, such as Think Fun games, checkers, mancala, blokus, dominoes, etc. They teach logic and strategy, as well as build the number sense.

It is extremely important to teach multiple approaches to the problem from the very beginning. Even a very young child can compare and contrast different ways of solving a problem, thus developing an important mind habit for future studies.Verbalization of solutions usually falls behind the ability to actually solve a problem. One of many possible way to develop this ability is to ask a child to solve a similar but different problem and point out the differences. It is also important to model your thinking process (think out loud) and demonstrate how you make mistakes, and how you realize what they are.

School-age children

While teaching from simple to complex is a time-proven way to teach a skill, it does not work this way to ignite an interest. A complex robot is more intriguing than a simple bolt. Many parents notice that while their bright children are eager to explore new concepts, they are reluctant to learn routine tools, such as multiplication table. In many cases, this is caused by the way the tools are presented. They are given to a child, instead of being discovered by a child. They are also often presented as an isolated piece, lacking in meaning and depth. While it is much easier for a school educator to present the material in such a way to save time, in order to cover the required material, this approach is the main reason for interest dry-up in students.

In many cases, children are greatly motivated by joining a community of like-minded children. A math circle, math club or math contest prep group can help your child to develop intellectually stimulating friendships, acquire sophisticated math debate skills, and inspire him/her to probe more deeply into the field.

Parents often wonder whether to interfere or not if a child is stuck with the problem, and feel a natural inclination to give a child a hand. However, being “stuck” is vital in developing solid problem solving skills. The feeling of being “stuck” activates the contemplating and inventive part of our brain. You may help your child by asking where exactly he/she is stuck; whether there may be alternative ways of solving the problem; whether the problem may be reduced to a simpler one; suggest finding an analogy in another domain; generalizing; estimating; building or drawing; check for hidden assumptions; explain a problem to a younger child; etc. It is important to teach a child how to relax while being stuck and how to develop an alternative way of attack.

It is crucial to create a warm, supportive and playful environment for problem solving. Your child should feel at ease in order to fully dive into a problem, and to associate hard intellectual work with pleasant feelings later on. A respectful and constructive feedback loop by a teacher or parent is essential in early years.

Support for parents

There are many parents who are concerned about development of their children, and would like to join a community of like –minded parents. At the moment, there are some engaging online communities for informal math education, where you can share your concerns and ask questions. Some of these communities are MathFuture, Moebius Noodles, Living Math and Art of Problem Solving. Math circles in DC Metro Area include Art of Inquiry, LLC ( math/system thinking circle for elementary school students), Fairfax Math Circle and DC Math circle ( for middle and high school students).

By Julia Brodsky, Art of Inquiry LLC -providing a unique educational programming in math, logic, inquiry and critical thinking for bright elementary school children. In Art of Inquiry classes, students solve non-standard and open-ended problems, learn to think critically, assess their unstated assumptions and challenge them, work together as a team and appreciate each others’ input and approach.


Kids activities: classes, camps, and sports - Activity Rocket
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