Problem Solving

Problem Solving

Problem SolvingIf you are the parent of a school-aged child, California’s Common Core standards are no doubt a daily presence in your life during homework time. Opinions on Common Core are wide and varied, but Common Core, at its heart, is intended to develop problem-solving and analytical skills.

Fortunately, children tend to be excellent problem-solvers by nature. In spite of sometimes generating solutions that are not entirely safe, or indeed, legal, children get a lot of enjoyment from using their skills to figure things out. From spatial awareness to theory of mind (the ability to understand that other people have a perspective different from one’s own), here are five problem-solving activities for various ages, each deemed fun by various panels of actual children. Recommended ages are approximate!

1. Nesting Objects (toddler to 5)

  • Materials: toys designed to be nesting toys or, failing that, measuring cups, measuring spoons, plastic bowls or storage containers of various sizes, or boxes that will fit inside one another.
  • Toddlers and preschoolers love fitting one thing inside the other thing which fits into another thing. Do all the things fit inside the same thing? No they do not. Incredible. Says one small reviewer of this activity: “Yaaaaaay.”

2. Hot/Warm/Cold (3 and up)

  • Materials: Object to hide, place to hide it
  • The game: have the player(s) cover their eyes or step into another room while you hide the object. When you are ready, they start looking for the object, with you indicating how close they are by telling them how hot they are. If they move away from the object, they are getting colder. Bonus points for references to fire, lava, ice, or snowstorms.

3. Reverse Engineering (6 and up)

  • Materials: paper plates; small items to go inside the folded paper plate such as dried beans, cotton balls, buttons, pebbles, jingle bells, pipe cleaners, cotton swabs, googly eyes, paper clips, etc.; means of fastening the folded plate shut, such as staples, tape, glue, or a combination of all 3.
  • You will be making a paper-plate maraca: without your participants present, fold the plate in half, place a smallish handful of the tiny items inside (or a combination of items), and secure it shut with the tape/staples/glue. You should have a taco-shaped contraption that makes some kind of noise when you shake it.
  • The participants’ job is to take your maraca and figure out a way to replicate it.
  • Provide the participants with an assortment of plates, noisemaking elements, and means of fastening it shut. Have them test out various combinations and see which sounds the most like the prototype.

4. The Catalog Game (6 and up)

  • Materials: a catalog of any kind
  • The game: two players open the catalog to any page they like. Each chooses an item that they would buy if they had the chance, but does not tell the other participant. The object is to guess what the other player would choose, in three guesses or less. If you guess correctly, you get a point.
  • The stranger the catalog, the better the game.

5. Hypothetical Questions (7 and up)

  • If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go? How would you get there? What would you do while you were there? What would you bring with you? Why?
  • Build your ideal house. Where would it be? What would it look like? What would it be made of? How would you plan ahead for issues such as chocolate roofs melting in the sun or flying monkey invasions?
  • What if the power went out at your home or school? What would you do for light? Heat/cooling? Entertainment? Information?
  • What if you had to choose one animal feature (claws, antlers, trunk, webbed feet, fur, etc.) to have for one year? What would you choose? How would it affect your everyday life?

Guest Writer-Elizabeth Wagner is a special needs educator with over 10 years of experience working iwth special needs children in the classroom and home setting.

Authored by: Cindy Donnelly

Cindy has worked for What's Up for Kids for over 19 years and is thrilled to take over as owner/publisher. She loves helping South Bay parents connect with resources and working with camps, schools and other businesses to get the word out about their quality programs and services for families. For marketing information you can contact her at

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