The problem is only impossible, not serious.


This Arabic proverb suggests problem solving is considered challenging - but necessary and stimulating; an important life skill.


What do your children say when faced with something that requires them to do some independent thinking: something that doesn’t present a natural choice of a right or wrong answer?


Do they give up straight away?

Say ‘I can’t’ in a loud voice of finality?

Look at you for the answer?

Definitely expect you to solve it for them?

And do you? (It’s Ok I’m not collecting answers)


Research demonstrates that when children are working in learning environments that actively encourage ambiguity and a spirit of enquiry, they learn more quickly and their learning is more secure and long-lasting.


Life is full of uncertainty so we surely do children a disservice if we don’t give them regular opportunities to practise the skills of problem solving: to ask the ‘what if?’ questions and make mistakes as they try things out.


In schools this is often seen in maths lessons, where children look at the different possibilities of buying something with different coins or shape and space problems like tessellation.


But if problems are an everyday experience for adults, then they should be for children too – at their level of manageability of course: I’m not suggesting we ask a six year old to solve the parking issues in the town or have an opinion on how to help the NHS make their budget go further (although it might be worth a try?)


I’m suggesting that we take every natural opportunity to challenge children to think things through for themselves: to realise that there might be more than one way to get the ‘solution’ and that part of the process will necessitate learning steps along the way (learning steps can be used as an alternative phrase for ‘mistakes’ – which might be better for some children, whose thinking can become limited or shut down at the thought of being ‘wrong’)


So what do I mean?  School and home both offer opportunities for ‘real-life’ scenarios that we can hand over to children.  This is often good in the form of a question:


The taps in the boys’ toilets keep getting left on and the school is wasting such a lot of money – what might we do to prevent this?’


There are some children in the playground at lunchtime who have no-one to play with and are becoming very unhappy – what can we do?


We need to build a bridge over the stream where the trolls live – it has to be strong enough to take the weight of a child in year 2.  Where might we start?


We have three guests coming for tea and we have four chairs. How many different seating arrangements are there?  Which is the best one do you think? How would that be different if we have 5 chairs and three guests?


Using that track and other bits in the construction corner- what is the shortest route across the room – from that table to that chair? What if you are only allowed three curved pieces?



What would happen if Jack’s beanstalk only grew half way up the castle wall? 



What could we do if the teapot had never been invented?  


Children need to be heard saying ‘I wonder if…   ‘I could try this…’  ‘Maybe…’   ‘Ok – let’s take it back to this point and try something else.


When children used to say to me ‘I can’t do that’ and looked like they were about to give up I might quote this proverb and then say ‘Well you can’t…yet – but let’s imagine you can – tell me what you would do first?’



Not becoming a problem solver is a serious business – what will you be doing to solve it?



Other examples of quick ideas to get children thinking in a variety of ways are in ‘Let’s Think Homework’ sample activities on the webpage.


Lets Think Homework

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