How problem solving skills can be effectively embedded in early learning today?

How to teach concepts to preschoolers

By Michael Hilkemeijer


Problem solving and critical thinking are among the most significant skills young children can learn. It is a complex intellectual process involving the coordination of a range of demanding and interrelated skills. They provide children with the foundations for decision-making, logical reasoning, categorising, analytical thinking, negotiation and creativity.


The skills that they will learn include:

  • Understanding and representing the problem (including identifying what kinds of information are relevant to its solution);
  • Gathering and organising relevant information;
  • Constructing and managing a plan of action, or a strategy;
  • Using various problem-solving tools;
  • Reasoning, hypothesis testing and decision making.

(Siraj-Blatchford & Whitebread, 2009, p. 69)


It is imperative, therefore, that you provide young children with a caring environment that is rich in appropriately challenging activities that enables them to develop their problem-solving skills and higher order thinking skills.



7 Ways to develop problem solving in Early Childhood Education

Building problem-solving skills is a foundational duty of parents and early childhood educators. Seven ways in which you can develop problem-solving skills in early childhood education include:


Use everyday moments – when it comes to problem-solving in early childhood education there is no textbooks. Encourage problem-solving skills through ongoing interactions with children throughout the day and talk children through the thought process.


Ask open-ended questions – asking questions is a powerful way to foster both problem-solving and creativity in young children. Promote more learning by allowing young children to think through the question.


Centre emotions – problem-solving involves emotions and so by providing the words needed to convey those feelings, a child learns what that feeling feels like and can vocabulary in the future to solve a conflict


Read books and tell stories – research has indicated that not having to deal with a problem that’s happening in the moment is a good way to practice problem-solving. As parents and early childhood educators, you can make your own social stories using pictures of the specific child and their environment. Social stories can be very helpful for children with anxiety about certain activities or routines, as well as with children with disabilities.


Take advantage of natural curiosities and interests – another approach is in the discovery of something they are authentically interested in learning about.


Model problem-solving – at this young age, preschoolers will learn a lot just by observing your behaviour as parents and early childhood teachers. Ensure that you allow time for mistakes, meltdowns and for celebration.


Look to the child for the solution – as within any context, young children may find difficulties in some task or the problem situation itself, the use of the software, or the application of the software to the problem. Therefore, young children must find and overcome, difficulties for learning to occur.




Problem solving in early childhood education

Integrating technology in the Preschool Classroom

The use of ICT throughout the early childhood education curriculum whether it may be the EYLF or EYFS, is supposed to encourage critical thinking, imagination and creativity, and problem solving in early childhood education. It is also supposed to spark initiative, independence and reflection!


Digital technology in early childhood education can engage learners in real world issues which can lead to authentic problem-solving learning experiences linked to curricula.



Throughout the learning of technology young children’s ICT capability should develop and this involves a knowledge and understanding in ICT that takes a form very different from progression in the other subjects of the early childhood education curriculum. It demands both an authentic context and a far high level of child autonomy and problem-solving skills.


Higher order thinking skills is naturally fostered in ICT activities for preschoolers. Problem-solving activities is just one way to encourage its use.


Additionally, metacognition – knowing what you know – is a crucial element in ICT capability and the development of this aspect is significant for children’s learning skills. Their ability to solve problems is also dependent on metacognitive knowledge, as problem-solving calls for using efficiently what you know. So, if they don’t have sense of what they know, they may find it difficult to an efficient problem-solver.


This is why the issue is not always whether children know an ICT technique or process, it is often whether they know that they know it and are thus able to decide to use it.



Observation and Assessment

The ‘Digital Play Framework’ (Bird & Edward, 2015) focuses on the impact of digital technologies on play and sets out behaviours in relation to epistemic that involve problem-solving along with exploration and skill acquisition. It also focuses on ludic play that looks at symbolism and innovation.



Game based learning

The affordances and the characteristics of new technology in early childhood education can aid children’s cognitive, social and emotional development in addition to supporting their self-efficacy and academic achievement. Digital games in early childhood education can provide virtual experiences in a participatory learning environment that are child-centred and contain elements of fantasy and challenge. These experiences can attract young children's interests, increase their motivation and promote problem-solving strategies in addition to cooperation and collaboration. This in turn leads to peer and social interactions and skills.


Research has found that children who are better problem-solvers have been found to “spend longer encoding and representing the problem to themselves before they start on a solution” (Siraj-Blatchford & Whitebread, 2009, p. 69). It has also been noted that when children have been required to review what they already know their abilities to problem-solve is significantly increased.


Digital computer games facilitate this in two ways – first, as I stated in an early article, that problems are embedded in ‘meaningful contexts’ and this helps children enormously as they are able to determine what is relevant and irrelevant. The second way in which computer games in early childhood education can facilitate the above is that they can serve as an excellent example of the same kind of problems just in different contexts and this, is extremely useful in helping young children to transfer their ideas and processes.


So exploring different games is very useful in ensuring the progression of similar problem-solving skills within different contexts but with the same underlying structure. For example, there are several different levels of difficulty in computer adventure games which are sequencing problems faced in the context of the search.


All this gives young children the experience of applying skills and ideas they have learnt in one context to a new context and this helps them to learn how to tackle new problems. Young children will learn to look for analogous problems that they encountered before, analyse problems in terms of their underlying structure, and also look for things that they know might be relevant. This helps them to understand and represent new problems effectively.


Computer games in early childhood education need to, therefore, encourage children’s creativity, problem-solving and deep learning.


It is through understanding how children engage in digital play that you as an educator can support this meaning-making and create positive outcomes for children’s digital play and learning.