Where There’s a Will There’s a Way…But Only If You’re Good at Problem Solving

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that, due to bad weather in the middle of the country, it looked like I was going to be stranded in California — more than 2600 miles from home — for three days longer than I’d planned. The thought horrified me. If I was going to take a mini-vacation it certainly wouldn’t be at an airport hotel! What on earth was I going to do with myself? Besides, as I said, I was out of clean clothes and supplements; and my sweet Mickey and I missed each other.

Honestly, when I woke up Sunday morning in a hotel room, instead of in my own bed, as planned, and read the text saying that yet another flight had been cancelled, I had visions of simply taking my roll-aboard and starting to walk. I was up for anything that would get me closer to home!

Unfortunately, when I tried calling American Airlines, I learned that it would be at least two hours before I could speak with someone. That was two hours during which I wouldn’t be making any progress. Two hours during which I wouldn’t know when I’d get home. Two hours wasted. That wasn’t acceptable, so I fired up my laptop and checked American’s flights myself – which was when I learned there was nothing available until Tuesday.

It was time for Plan C. (Plan B had been Sunday’s flight.) I looked up the number for Expedia’s customer service and called them for help. I told a lovely man named Charlie that there were a few airports within Ubering distance, and I asked him to check them, one by one, until he found a way to get me home that day. And he did! I ended up Ubering an hour and a half to San Diego and flying on Delta. Because of the time difference I didn’t get home until after midnight, but I didn’t care; I was home!

For years, I’ve been preaching about problem solving. Telling those attending my professional development trainings that the ability to solve problems is the one skill we can be certain today’s children will need in the future. This becomes increasingly clear as changes in our lives occur more and more rapidly, and as the world becomes smaller and smaller. But are schools focusing on that skill? No! They are, in fact, doing the opposite, with their standardized curriculums, standardized tests, and worksheets.

It infuriates me. I mean, unless a child is going to grow up to become a game show contestant, she will have little use for the information we ask her to memorize and regurgitate. Not only is this not authentic learning; also, without regular experience in divergent problem solving, a child will come to believe there’s only one right answer to every question. To every challenge. But, clearly, there isn’t. There wasn’t one “right” way for me to get home. There’s never just one way to stretch a dollar. To manage a busy schedule. To resolve a conflict. For those who can’t think outside the “bubble,” these can become insurmountable issues.

If children are going to be subjected to inflexible thinking in their elementary-school years and beyond, I fervently hope that you, as an early childhood professional, will help counteract the nonsense. And I assure you, it’s not that hard to do!

The trick is to implement divergent problem solving whenever possible. I used it all the time with movement experiences. For example, I asked children to:

  • show me what it looks like to move in slow motion.
  • demonstrate the color yellow with their body or body parts.
  • show me a crooked shape.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of possible responses to these challenges! Just the latter one alone could result in 23 children showing you 23 different possibilities.

The important task, once you’ve presented such a challenge, is to acknowledge different responses. If you say, “I see Henry is making a crooked shape down near the floor,” all the children will rush to do what Henry’s doing – because they want your validation too. But if you point out Henry’s response and then quickly add, “Nia is making a crooked shape way up high, and Kim is making a crooked shape in the middle,” the children realize that there’s no one correct answer. And as you do this on a regular basis, the children feel more and more confident and take more and more creative risks.

Here are examples from other content areas:

  • To explore counting, ask the children to place a certain number of body parts on the floor. If you’ve asked them to touch the floor with only five body parts, you might see such combinations as two hands, one knee, and one foot; two knees, two hands, and the top of the head; two feet, two hands, and the bottom.
  • For another math activity, invite children to use manipulatives to show you two different ways to come up with the number nine (3+3+3; 4+5, 8+1; 7+2, etc.).
  • Hand out tambourines and ask the children to find three different ways to make a sound with it (music). They might shake it, tap it with a finger, flick it with a fingernail, bang it lightly on top of the head or another body part, etc.
  • Before you get to the end of a story you’re reading, invite the children to tell you how they think it ends (emergent literacy).
  • At the water table, ask the children to find three different things that float (science).

If one of the primary purposes of education is to teach children how to think, divergent problem solving is the method to use! But if we want children to become adept at filling in bubbles and spitting out facts that anyone can find with a Google search…well, then, we should just keep doing what we’re doing.


1 Comment

  • Peggy Rhodes says:

    A educator, children learn better in an environment for learning and engagement. Pre K classrooms present this interaction that children need as early even as babies to get them started on routines, transitions abd interactions with care practitioners. This helps challenging behaviors where they learn to control their emotions and to become better integrated to future academic skills.

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