From tackling a complex project at work to figuring out how to manage your busy schedule, every day you use problem solving skills like critical thinking, reasoning, and creativity. How did you learn these skills? Just as your child will: through exploration and play. Support their problem solving skills through activities that let them independently try new things, learn from their mistakes, and test out different ways of thinking.
In this article:
- What is problem solving?
- What are examples of problem solving skills?
- When do children develop problem solving skills?
- Why are problem solving skills important in child development?
- Problem solving games & activities for babies and toddlers
- Problem-solving and frustration tolerance
- Developmental concerns with problem solving
What is problem solving?
Problem solving is the process by which your child spots a problem and comes up with a solution to overcome it. Your child uses problem-solving skills in all sorts of contexts, from figuring out how to get a ball out of a cup to interacting with a child who took their toy.
Children don’t inherently understand different approaches to solving problems—these skills develop gradually over time, starting in the earliest days of life. As your child gains experience, tests out strategies, plays with various materials, and watches people around them, they learn how to problem-solve.
What are examples of problem-solving skills?
Think about strategies you might use to tackle a project at work—for example, creating an outline, breaking the project into steps, or delegating tasks. With your help, your child will develop problem-solving skills like these:
- Breaking a large problem into smaller steps
- Persevering through challenges or setbacks
- Using creativity to think “outside the box” about different solutions
- Being resourceful by using available items as tools to reach a goal
- Taking the initiative to try a possible solution and see if it works
- Seeking help when you get stuck
- Using compromise or negotiation to help resolve a conflict
- Using critical thinking to discover what the next step should be
When do children develop problem-solving skills?
As early as 8 to 11 months, you may see the earliest signs of your child’s problem-solving skills at work. If you hide a toy under a blanket or basket, for example, they may use basic problem-solving to try to uncover it.
As a toddler, your child will grow more experienced with different types of playthings and the challenges they offer. They’ll also develop more focus and patience to work through problems on their own. Support their emerging problem-solving skills by observing their efforts—without stepping in right away to help. It’s tempting to intervene when you see your toddler struggle to fit the pieces of a puzzle, align blocks so they won’t fall, or get a stuck car out of the Race & Chase Ramp. Banging, rotating, failing, and trying again are all important parts of the process. Your toddler gains more problem-solving experience with every attempt.
By 3 years of age, your child will have more skills to help them solve a problem. They’ve learned how to communicate and follow directions. They also have more control over their emotions and their body. Not only are they ready to solve more complex puzzles and games, they’re learning how to solve social problems, like working through conflict and negotiating with peers during play.
Why are problem-solving skills important in child development?
If your child is accustomed to tackling problems, they’re more likely to at least attempt to get the cup they need off the high shelf, or try to buckle those tricky sandal straps. Practicing problem-solving can help your child overcome challenges, try flexible ways of thinking, and become more confident and independent in the process.
Problem-solving skills are also crucial to your child’s cognitive development. They encourage your child’s brain to make new connections and process information in new ways. This is why so many of the best games, toys, and activities for young children stress some element of problem-solving, critical thinking, or creativity.
Your child can develop better social skills when they practice problem-solving, too: Understanding how to resolve conflicts and compromise with peers is a crucial problem-solving skill they’ll take with them into preschool and beyond.
Problem-solving activities & games
You don’t need elaborate planning or fancy equipment to help your child develop these skills. Many problem-solving activities for kids can be incorporated into daily life or during playtime.
Problem-solving activities for babies
It will be years before your baby is ready for advanced problem-solving skills, like compromising with others and project planning. For now, they’ll experiment with different ways to solve simple problems, showing initiative, perseverance, and creativity. Here are a few activities that help spark your baby’s problem-solving skills.
Reaching for a toy: Setting a goal is the very first step in problem-solving. Once your baby can sit independently, place toys one at a time in front of them, behind them, beside them, between their legs, or on a nearby shelf. This allows them to practice setting a goal—get the toy!—and making a plan to achieve it.
Emptying a container: Dumping objects out of containers sounds like a mess, but it’s a valuable skill for babies to learn. Place a Wood Ball in a Nesting Stacking Drip Drop Cup and show your baby how to tip over the cup to empty it. Then, put the ball back into the cup and let your baby figure out how to get the ball out of the container on their own.
Finding hidden objects: Your baby practices problem-solving with the Sliding Top Box every time they work to figure out how to slide the top to reveal the ball inside. This also builds fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
Posting: The Wooden Peg Drop lets your baby experiment with “posting,” or fitting an object into its container, a much-loved fine motor activity. The tab release is an engaging problem-solving task for your baby, as they discover how to press down to release the pegs from their slots.
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Problem-solving activities for toddlers
At 12 to 18 months, your toddler’s problem-solving skills are still taking shape. But you may begin to see them work to figure out more complex problems, like pulling toys around obstacles or getting objects “unstuck.” Encourage your toddler through play with activities that challenge their creative thinking.
Object interactions: What happens when you push a squishy ball through a small opening? How does a bendy thing react when it hits something hard? Understanding how different objects interact helps your child learn to use tools for problem-solving.
As you play with your toddler, demonstrate different ways playthings can interact. Two blocks can be banged together, stacked, or lined up side by side. The insects from the Fuzzy Bug Shrub can be stuck to the outside of the shrub or put inside. Give your child pieces from different playthings and see how they can make them interact. Perhaps the balls from the Slide and Seek Ball Run and the rings from the Flexible Wooden Stacker can interact in some new, fun way?
Asking questions: Once your toddler learns how to push the Carrots through the Carrot Lid for the Coin Bank, the question becomes how to get them out. Ask your toddler simple questions to spark their problem-solving skills: “Where did the carrots go?” or “How can we get them out?” Encourage your child to explore the Coin Bank and give them time to discover a solution on their own.
Simple challenges: Your toddler may be ready for some problem-solving challenges with their playthings. For example, when your toddler can pick up a toy in each hand, offer a third toy and see if they can figure out how to carry all three at once. Or place parts of a toy—like the rings for the Flexible Wooden Stacker—in different locations around the room, so your child needs to plan how to retrieve the pieces. Pack as many Quilted Critters as will fit in The Lockbox and let your toddler discover how to get them out. This type of challenge may seem simple, but your child has to problem-solve how to navigate their hand into the box to pull out the Critters.
Cause and effect: Your toddler may discover how to pull on a string attached to a toy to make it move. They understand that the toy and the string are linked, and use simple problem-solving skills to test—and re-test—what happens when they move the string differently. This type of problem-solving can be supported by pull toys such as The Pull Pup. As your toddler encounters different obstacles—like the corner of the couch—with The Pull Pup, they’ll have to problem-solve to keep the toy moving.
RELATED: Pull toys are classic for a reason
Puzzles are a classic childhood problem-solving activity for good reason. Your child learns how things fit together, how to orient and rotate objects, and how to predict which shape might fit a particular space. Puzzles come in such a wide variety of difficulty levels, shapes, sizes, and formats, there’s a puzzle that’s right for almost every stage of development.
Lovevery co-founder Jessica Rolph explains how Lovevery puzzles are designed to progress with your child’s problem-solving and fine motor skills:
Babies can begin exploring simple one-piece puzzles around 6 to 8 months of age. Puzzles that have round slots and easy-to-hold pieces with knobs, like the First Puzzle, are ideal for this age. Around 13 to 15 months of age, they can try simple puzzles with several pieces in the same shape, like the Circle of Friends Puzzle.
By 18 months, your toddler is probably ready to work with puzzle shapes that are geometric, animal, or organic, like the Community Garden Puzzle. This reinforces your toddler’s newfound understanding that different shapes fit in different places. As they progress, they may start to enjoy stacking and nesting puzzles, like the 3D Geo Shapes Puzzle. This type of puzzle requires problem-solving on a new level, since your child may have to turn the shapes in different directions to orient and place them correctly.
As your toddler approaches their second birthday, they may be ready for classic jigsaw puzzles. Puzzles with large pieces that are easy for your toddler to hold, like the Chunky Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle, are a great place to start. At this age, your toddler may also find 3D puzzles, like the Wooden Posting Stand, an engaging problem-solving challenge. Since the dowels are different diameters, your child will likely use trial and error to determine which size fits in the correct slot. At first, you may have to guide them a bit: Point out that the dowels need to go in straight in order to fit.
How to encourage puzzle play for active toddlers
Depending on your toddler’s temperament, they may love to sit quietly and work on a puzzle—or they may be constantly on the move. Highly active toddlers may seem like they never sit still long enough to complete an activity, like a puzzle or building with blocks. Here are a few ways to combine their love of movement with puzzle play:
- Play “hide-and-seek” with toys (or puzzle pieces) by placing them on top of furniture that’s safe to cruise along or climb on.
- Place puzzle pieces in different places around the room, so they have to retrieve them one by one to solve the puzzle.
- Place the puzzle pieces on stairs or in different rooms so your toddler has to walk or climb to find them.
Stacking toys such as blocks or rings engage babies and toddlers in a challenging form of problem-solving play. Your child’s skills are put to the test as they plan where to place each item, work to balance their stack, and wrestle with gravity to keep the stack from toppling.
You can introduce your baby to stacking play around 9 to 10 months with playthings that are easy to work with, like the Nesting Stacking Drip Drop Cups. Stacking takes coordination, precision, and patience, and if they try to stack items that are too difficult to keep upright, they may become frustrated and give up.
You can also make basic blocks easier to stack by using a larger item, like the Little Grip Canister Set, as a base. Demonstrate how to stack a block on top of the canister, then knock the tower down. Hand a block to your toddler and allow them to try stacking and knocking it down. As their movements become more controlled and purposeful, introduce another block to stack.
Stacking a tower with the pegs from the Wooden Stacking Pegboard is a fun way to introduce goal-setting, an important aspect of problem-solving. The pegs nest together securely, allowing your toddler to build a higher, more stable tower than they could create with regular blocks. You can gently suggest a goal for your child—“Can we stack it higher?”—and see if they’re ready for the challenge. Then, sit and support them as they try to solve any problems that arise: “Is the tower too tall? Can we make it wider so it won’t fall so easily?”
The classic childhood game of hide-and-seek offers your toddler many problem-solving opportunities. Your child has to use reasoning to figure out what would be a good hiding spot. They also use the process of elimination when they think about where they have and haven’t looked. They might even use creative thinking skills to discover a new place to hide.
The game doesn’t always have to involve you and your child hiding. When your child is around 12 months, you can introduce them to the concept using toys or other objects. Hide a small ball in one of two identical containers that you can’t see through, like upside-down cups. Make sure your child sees you put the ball under one of the containers, then mix them up. Lift the empty container to show your toddler that the ball isn’t inside and say, “Where is the ball?” If your toddler looks at the other container, say, “Yes! The ball is under this one.” Let your toddler lift the second container to find the ball.
Your toddler might enjoy a game of hide-and-seek with The Lockbox. Hide a small toy, like one of the Quilted Critters or a small ball, inside The Lockbox. This activity challenges your toddler’s problem-solving skills on two levels: figuring out how to unlock the different mechanisms to open the doors, and feeling around inside to discover what’s hidden. Add another layer of fun to the challenge by letting your child try to guess the object just by touching it—no peeking.
Using tools to solve problems
Around 17 to 24 months of age, your child may begin using tools to solve simple problems. For example, if you ask your child to pick up their toys, their hands may become full quickly. You can model how to load toys into a bucket or bag to carry them to another spot. This might seem like an obvious choice, but the ability to use a tool to make a task easier or solve a problem is an important cognitive skill.
Here are a few ways you and your toddler can explore using tools to solve a problem:
- Show your child how to make a “shirt bowl” by using the upturned edge of their shirt as a cradle to hold toys or playthings.
- If a toy gets stuck behind the sofa, model how you can use a broomstick to push the toy to a place where you can reach it.
- Provide a child-size stool that your child can use to reach the sink or counter.
The Transfer Tweezers are a simple tool that your toddler can use to pick up other items besides the Felt Stars. They could try picking up the animals from the Quilted Critter Set or other child-safe items. Whenever you model how to use tools in everyday life, your child learns to think about new and different ways to solve problems.
Pretend play supports your child’s problem-solving skills in many ways. Research suggests that children’s pretend play is linked to different types of problem-solving and creativity. For example, one study showed that pretend play with peers was linked to better divergent problem-solving—meaning that children were able to “think outside the box” to solve problems.
Pretend play is also a safe place for children to recreate—and practice solving—problems they’ve seen in their lives. Your 2- to 3-year-old may reenact an everyday challenge—for example, one doll might take away another doll’s toy. As practice for real-world problem solving, you can then help them talk through how the dolls might solve their issue together
Pretend play may help children be more creative and open to new ideas. In pretend play, children put together play scenarios, act on them, and develop creative solutions. A 3- or 4-year-old child might be ready to explore creative problem-solving through pretend play that uses their playthings in new ways. Help your child start with an idea: “What do you want to pretend to be or recreate — a favorite storybook scene or someone from real life like a doctor or server at a restaurant?” Then encourage them to look for playthings they can use to pretend. Maybe a block can be a car or the beads from the Threadable Bead Set serve as “cups” in your child’s pretend restaurant. As your child gains practice with creative pretend play, they may start to form elaborate fantasy worlds.
Even if you don’t think of yourself as creative, you can model creative thinking by showing your child how a toy can be used in many different ways. Research finds that parents who model “out of the box” ways to play can encourage creative thinking and problem-solving in their children, starting in toddlerhood.
Problem-solving and frustration tolerance
It can be difficult for young children to manage their frustration, but giving your child opportunities to solve problems on their own helps build both confidence and frustration tolerance. Research suggests that the ability to set goals and persist in them through challenges—sometimes called “grit”—is linked to school and career success. Here’s how you can play an important role in helping your child develop problem-solving persistence.
Model persistence. You know your toddler closely observes everything you do 🙃 A 2017 study shows that young children who watch their parents persist in their own challenge were more likely to show persistence themselves. Allow your toddler to see you attempting an activity, failing, and talking yourself through trying again. While playing with blocks, try stacking a few off balance so they fall. Notice aloud what went wrong and continue to narrate as you move slowly to carefully stack the blocks again.
Give them time. A little frustration can go a long way toward learning. It can take enormous restraint not to point out where to put the puzzle piece or how to slot the peg in place—but try to give them time to problem-solve on their own. You’re helping them feel capable and confident when faced with new challenges.
Ask questions to encourage new strategies. If your toddler gets frustrated with a problem, encourage their problem-solving process by asking questions: “Are you trying to race the car down the ramp but it got stuck? Is the car too long to go down sideways?” This may help your child refocus their attention on their goal instead of what they have already unsuccessfully tried. With a little time and creative problem-solving, your child may figure it out on their own.
Developmental concerns with problem-solving
Problem-solving skills are just one component of your child’s overall cognitive development. By around 12 months of age, you should see signs that your child is attempting to solve simple problems, like looking for a toy under a blanket. By about 30 months, your child may show slightly more advanced problem-solving skills, like using a stool to reach a high counter. Their attempts might not always be successful at this age, but the fact that they’re trying shows they’re thinking through different options. If you don’t see signs of your child trying to solve problems in these ways, talk to your pediatrician about your concerns. They can assess your child’s overall development and answer any questions.
Meet the Experts
Learn more about the Lovevery child development experts who created this story.
Research & Resources
Alan, S., Boneva, T., & Ertac, S. (2019). Ever failed, try again, succeed better: Results from a randomized educational intervention on grit. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 134(3), 1121-1162.
Bergen, D. (2002). The role of pretend play in children’s cognitive development. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 4(1), n1.
Bruner, J. S. (1973). Organization of early skilled action. Child Development, 1-11.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087.
Hoicka, E., Mowat, R., Kirkwood, J., Kerr, T., Carberry, M., & Bijvoet‐van den Berg, S. (2016). One‐year‐olds think creatively, just like their parents. Child Development, 87(4), 1099-1105.
Keen, R. (2011). The development of problem solving in young children: A critical cognitive skill. Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 1-21.
Mullineaux, P. Y., & Dilalla, L. F. (2009). Preschool pretend play behaviors and early adolescent creativity. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 43(1), 41-57.
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