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Raise a Problem Solver: 3 Ways Play Can Help

Parenting can be a lot of work. But sometimes the biggest challenges is doing less: knowing when to let your child struggle through a problem on their own, rather than jump in to solve it for them. Sometimes, you may be in a rush ("We need to get out the door—let me tie those shoelaces for you already!"). Other times, it's just hard to watch your children stumble or fail.

It helps to remember that the friction of struggling with, and eventually mastering everyday problems—from figuring out a puzzle to handling big emotions—is important for a child's well-being. They need to develop a sense that they can handle new or challenging experiences.

How can you help your kids have a "can-do" mindset, where they approach exploration and challenge with curiosity and persistence? How do we get them to stop relying on us caregivers for reminders, prompts or doing things for them?

3 ways play can help kids learn to solve problems

Play is the best thing we can do to support problem-solving. Children as young as infants and toddlers can start building problem-solving skills through play. Here are a few examples of ways you can support them:

  • 1. Let your child see how you solve problems


    Children learn problem-solving by copying us. The more we can demonstrate how to solve problems—whether by showing them how to use a shape sorter, or talking out loud about how we are handling frustration ("ok, I'm looking for my keys, not going to freak out, I'll just retract my steps")—the more they will pick up on this.

  • 2. Recognize your micromanager tendencies


    In our productivity-centered world, sometimes we focus too much on getting things done instead of the process of doing them. Play is all about the process, about messing up and discovering new approaches and workarounds. Over-focusing on the product or outcome can lead to children being perfectionists.

    If we let kids know that mess is part of the journey, this will help build a healthier mindset: enjoying the challenge, not just the gold star or ribbon that they may get at the end. For example, when you’re doing an art or craft project, resist the temptation to fix your child’s "happy accidents." Instead, hang back and observe what your child decides to do with them.​

  • 3. Scaffold, but also create some "white space"


    Scaffolding is the idea that you help your child do things that they couldn't do on their own. This may be through hints or setting them up for success. For example, you might lay out your school-age child's lunch bag and sandwich ingredients, but then let them make the sandwich.

    Knowing what your child needs is part of being a sensitive parent, but don't let it prevent giving them ​the opportunity to do it themselves. Try hanging back. You might say something like, "I'm looking for a puzzle piece with a straight edge" instead of handing them the puzzle piece, for example. That way, your child needs to figure out what to do next. This "white space" gives the child agency to do things that you might do for them without even thinking about it.

    Your child may not know what to do, or even struggle a bit when you give them the space to figure things out on their own. But remember that a little friction is good and can help kids be more natural problem solvers!

    More information

Last Updated
Adapted from Melissa & Doug: Our Blog
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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