It can be frustrating when children act without thinking of the consequences. In this blog post, you’ll learn about the development of problem solving in specific parts of our brain, discover important aspects of executive functioning that impact problem solving abilities, how to teach problem solving to preschoolers, and problem solving activities for preschoolers and young children so they can use words instead of the preschooler’s behaviors or tantrums.
Best of all, many of our favorite fine motor activities for preschoolers support problem solving skills in early childhood.
Problem Solving Activities for Preschoolers
Before we get into the problem solving activities for preschoolers, and specific strategies to use in early childhood, it’s important to understand the development of the problem-solving process in kids. Supporting small children by giving them the skills to be problem solvers takes time and practice. We’ll get to those specific strategies below.
But first, does this scenario sound familiar at all…
I just don’t understand why Johnny keeps throwing the ball in the house. Doesn’t he realized that he could break the window? Johnny is three and he loves to play with his tennis ball in the house. Even though I have told him over and over again that we don’t throw them in the house, I still catch him sneaking them indoors at least once a week.
Before we can address problem solving by helping kids look at the big picture and coming up with creative solutions for problem solving issues, we need to understand what is happening developmentally. Self-reflection is a challenging cognitive skill, and for young learners!
Let’s take a better look at the development of problem solving skills…
Development of Problem Solving Skills
It’s through play, observation of others, and practice that young learners are developing problem solving skills in early childhood.
Problem solving, rational thinking and reasoning are all skills that are controlled by a part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex. Our brains grow exponentially over the first five years of life, but not the part of our brain that helps us with critical thinking and problem solving skills. This part of our brain, called the prefrontal cortex, isn’t fully developed until we turn 25 years old!
As babies, we are exposed every day to new experiences, but at this age we don’t comprehend how these experiences affect us and those around us. If only children could think through their problems. This resource on executive functioning skills offers more information.
Have you noticed that it can be a bit scary when teenagers get their drivers licenses? They don’t always think of “what might happen.” This is due to their prefrontal cortex not being fully developed.
But what about our three and four year olds? We know they can count, ask questions and get the cookie off the counter in a very sneaky way when we aren’t looking. In the Early Years study of 2011 called Making decisions, Taking action, they describe the prefrontal cortex entering a rapid period of development, making critical interconnections with our limbic system. (link: )
This study states “The prefrontal cortex pathways that underlie these capacities are unique to human brains and take a long time to mature. Early connections begin in infancy. Between age 3 and 5 years, the prefrontal cortex circuits enter a rapid period of development and make critical interconnections with the limbic system. During adolescence and early adulthood, the neural pathways are refined and become more efficient.”
What is so great about this part of the brain anyway?
As the prefrontal cortex (that is located behind out eyes) develops over the years, we are able to engage with situations differently, assessing our surroundings in a new way. As we develop these new executive functioning skills, we are able to keep ourselves safe, build friendships and become successful in our careers.
Related, these friendship activities for preschoolers offers ideas and strategies to support social emotional development.
This peer reviewed report competed by Merve Cikili Utyun, called Development Period of Prefrontal Cortex, discusses how amazing this part of our brain is, and how each of the three sections control different aspects of our functioning. It states that:
“ PFC includes the following Broadman Areas (BA): 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 44, 45, 46, 47. “The dorsolateral frontal cortex (BA) 9/46 has been functioned in many cognitive process, including processing spatial information, monitoring and manipulation of working memory, the implementation of strategies to facilitate memory, response selection, the organization of material before encoding, and the verification and evaluation of representations that have been retrieved from long-term memory.
The mid-ventrolateral frontal cortex (BA 47) has implicated cognitive functions, including the selection, comparison, and judgment of stimuli held in short-term and long-term memory, processing non-spatial information, task switching, reversal learning, stimulus selection, the specification of retrieval cues, and the ‘elaboration encoding’ of information into episodic memory.
BA 10, the most anterior aspect of the PFC, is a region of association cortex known to be involved in higher cognitive functions, such as planning future actions and decision-making. BAs 44 and 45, include part of the inferior frontal and these regions’ functions are language production, linguistic motor control, sequencing, planning, syntax, and phonological processing.
Finally, the orbitofrontal cortex mostly (BA 47, 10, 11, 13) in the orbitofrontal cortex has been implicated in processes that involve the motivational or emotional value of incoming information, including the representation of primary (unlearned) reinforcers such as taste, smell, and touch, the representation of learnt relationships between arbitrary neutral stimuli and rewards or punishments, and the integration of this information to guide response selection, suppression, and decision making.”
Wow! No wonder it takes so long for this part of our brain to fully develop. Problem solving skills in preschoolers take time to develop!
When Johnny is throwing the ball inside the house, he is thinking about what is happening now, in the present. Not what has happened in the past (when he broke the window at grandmas house a year ago) or that breaking a window might happen in the future.
What are some problem solving techniques?
Solving problems is a skill that all preschoolers need support with. This critical skill doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and practice to become second nature.
It’s hard for us, as adults, to remember that children ages 3-5 (preschool-aged) don’t yet have the brain capacity to problem solve on their own, or remember what they learned from a situation a week ago.
Just like when Andrew was painting at the easel and his paintbrush got stuck in the container. Instead of asking for help or trying to “unstick” the brush, he screamed. Or when Sally and Samantha ran outside to grab the red bouncy ball, Samantha screamed when Sally grabs it first. She didn’t see the other red bouncy ball in the bucket next to the bikes.
Try some of these problem solving activities for kids:
Observation- Children need problem solving strategies that they can observe, and then practice in their everyday lives. Let kids see you talk through problems as you “figure out” a solution. This gives children a chance to see a problem-solving approach in real life situations. They get to see problem solving scenarios in action.
Repetition- Repetition supports brain growth in every area of development including problem solving, executive functioning, motor development, language skills and social development.
Multisensory Activities- Children learn best with multi-sensory cues, learning new skills through seeing, touching, hearing and experiencing the skills they are learning. In 2013, the US National Library of Medicine published an article titled Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. stating “The prefrontal cortex acquires information from all of the senses and orchestrates thoughts and actions in order to achieve specific goals.” (link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621648/)
Creative Activities- Solving problems is a skill that all preschoolers need support with. It’s hard for us, as adults, to remember they don’t yet have the brain capacity to problem solve on their own. The best way to teach children how to problem solve, it to create activities that support these new skills in a positive way, that their developing brain understands. This letter to future self is one activity to work on goal achievement even at a young age. Preschoolers can draw a picture of what they would like to do or be as an older child or as a teenager or adult.
Problem Solving Activities for Preschool
Here are 3 Simple Ways to Teach Preschoolers to Solve Problems
1.Teaching executive functioning and problem solving skills in everyday situations will support the growth of a child’s prefrontal cortex. For example, these activities that teach executive functioning at the beach show how much thought and preparation goes into building a simple sand castles.
- Children have to think about how much sand to use, how to keep it standing, how to prevent sand from getting into their eyes and how to create another one if the one they are building falls down.
- They must create, plan ahead, problem solve when things get tough and communicate to adults and peers for help.
What other activities does your child do on a regular basis that requires all areas of the prefrontal cortex to activate?
2.When children become upset, their emotions become so overwhelming that they can’t think. In order to calm down and problem solve, they need to access a multi sensory way to help them remember how to do that.
Soothing Sammy gives children tactile and visual cues that remind them how to calm down and problem solve in a developmentally appropriate way. They can be reminded of this positive reinforcement with two words “Sammy Time!”
By reading the book about the sweet golden retriever, who understands that everyone feels upset sometimes, children are encouraged to use all of the sensory strategies to calm down. They can talk to Sammy about what is happening and think through their problem to create a solution.
Ashlie’s four year old daughter did just this. She reports: “When Molly was having some big emotions about coloring a picture and needed to calm down, she visited Sammy and returned with a solution to the problem she came up with all on her own (well with Sammy’s help).”
Click here for more information on the Soothing Sammy resources.
3.Problem solving requires us to remember what just happened, what is happening now and what do we want to happen next. A preschoolers brain tends to blend all three of these situations together, not able to communicate any of them until prompted by an adult. And as an adult, we are left “guessing” what our children are thinking about. Visual cues are a wonderful sensory communication tool to support both children and adults in the realm of solving problems.
Using tools like “First/Then” cards to support routine and common situations like transitions and completing tasks. Using visuals clearly communicates what needs to be done, especially if using pictures of real children doing these tasks.
A Final note about problem solving skills in preschool
Solving problems are hard for young children, even teenagers, as their prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed yet. Using multisensory teaching tools to support brain development, practicing tasks that teach executive functioning skills and using developmentally appropriate tools to help children calm down, will help even the most frustrating moments become a bit less stressful for children and adults.
As we learn to be more patient with children, understanding that the part of their brain needed to solve problems is just beginning to develop, repeating the same directions over and over again may not be so frustrating. Our children are doing the best they can. It’s up to us to provide them with experiences to help their brains grow and develop.
Jeana Kinne is a veteran preschool teacher and director. She has over 20 years of experience in the Early Childhood Education field. Her Bachelors Degree is in Child Development and her Masters Degree is in Early Childhood Education. She has spent over 10 years as a coach, working with Parents and Preschool Teachers, and another 10 years working with infants and toddlers with special needs. She is also the author of the “Sammy the Golden Dog” series, teaching children important skills through play.