Critical thinking: Another essential life skill

Help children learn to think critically to achieve success in school and in life.

Through play, children learn how to make choices and think critically when a problem presents itself.

Through play, children learn how to make choices and think critically when a problem presents itself.

Think for a moment about all of the decisions you need to make and problems you need to solve each day. How did you learn to make decisions? Did your parents sit you down and teach a decision-making lesson? Was decision making a subject that you learned in school? Probably not!

We make critical decisions every day by observing and assessing a situation or problem, thinking through possible solutions, experimentation and trial and error. Our situations might be as simple as what to have for dinner tonight or as complex as the purchase of a new home.

Educators and many parents agree that guiding young children in the problem solving process is more important than ever as we prepare them to enter the world of problem solving that can lead to academic and life success. Critical thinking is the fifth of seven essential life skills identified in the book, “Mind in the Making; the Seven Essential Life Skills that Every Child Needs.”

So, where, when and how do we begin to teach the skill?

Critical thinking involves several steps, most of which we adults breeze though without much thought.

  • Identify the issue. “There is only one red truck and my brother and I both want it.”
  • Think about the goal. “I want the truck.”
  • Brainstorm possible solutions. “I could take the truck and hide it from my brother.” “I could let my brother have the truck.” I could find another truck and we would both have one.” “I could share the truck.”
  • Think through possible results. “I might get into trouble if I tell a lie about taking the truck.” “If I let my brother have the truck, he might tease me and I’ll feel bad.” “If I find a second truck, we would both be happy and play together.” “We could have fun if we share; I could fill the truck and he could dump it.”
  • Try one of the solutions. “I think I will look for another truck.”
  • Evaluate the outcome. “Yeah! We both have trucks and can play together.”

Very young children can begin a process of problem solving and critical thinking with help from the adults in their lives. Michigan State University Extension recommends you provide children with lots of opportunities to play. Play is the primary way children learn about their world and how things work. Through play, children learn how to make choices and think critically when a problem presents itself.

Ask questions. “What is the problem here?” “What would happen if the boy in our book decided to really run away?” “What else do you think he could do if he is unhappy?” “What would happen if he tried that?” Don’t jump in to solve all of a child’s problems. Provide information that is needed to solve a problem, but give your child an opportunity to explore options.

Help children explore solutions. Let kids make predictions and explore the outcome. “I wonder what would happen if you mixed your red paint with your yellow paint.” “How do you think Joey would feel if you didn’t invite him to your party?”

Children’s books are one method of teaching critical thinking in a fun way. “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” and other books by Laura Joffe Numeroff can assist children in learning about the outcomes of a choice. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning encourages a way to teach problem solving using four easy steps.

Prepare your children for success. Model the thinking process for children as you go through your day. Wonder aloud about what is the best time to do the grocery shopping or what is the best buy on cereal. Talk about how you double the ingredients in a recipe as you prepare a meal. Share how sometimes it is helpful to think through your issue out loud. When you model problem solving and reasoning, your children will learn from your example and apply the process to real life without your prompting.

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