From birth, children are wired to problem-solve. At every stage of their development we observe them trying to find a way to solve a problem, whether it is by crossing the room or going down a slide, building a tower out of bricks or building a friendship.

Problem-solving is as much a part of life as breathing, and it is our job as practitioners to a) co-regulate children so that they feel ready to explore and problem-solve and b) to encourage children to ever deeper levels of possibility thinking and problem-solving. Encouragement and support build up the problem-solving part of the brain. Anxiety, stress and fear will shut it down.

Problems can come thick and fast in life. Recently I watched “Clarkson’s Farm,” where Jeremy Clarkson wanted to put up owl boxes using telegraph poles. It was not a success! The first pole smashed down onto a nearby fence and crushed it. Undaunted, Jeremy worked out a way to make it happen. He found a man whose job it was to put up telegraph poles. Up went several owl boxes within the space of a couple of hours. Problem solved!

It is imperative that we encourage children to see challenges through a positive lens. Everything changes for the child when they identify a challenge, create a solution and execute the plan successfully. It opens up a world full of possibility and promise.

Existing knowledge in ‘working theories’

When children come to pre-school, they already have a profound knowledge (working theories) of their world. Such knowledge is accumulated as children play, socialise, and gather information about their world. It is only when we fully understand children’s current understanding that we can offer them activities that match/challenge that understanding. Children experience frustration when adults are insensitive to their existing knowledge. Too often we offer generic, broad activities that children overlook because they already ‘know’ it! Their expertise is not being acknowledged, and crucial problem-solving potential is being lost. Our planning and provision must match each child’s prior knowledge.

The problem-solving environment

As children are wired for problem-solving, then the environment we provide must have plenty of problems to solve! A problem-solving environment encourages children to guess, speculate, consider, go down ‘dead ends’, make mistakes and adjust their thinking. A problem-solving environment supports thinking, rationalising, ideas and views. And the earlier children start to face achievable challenges, the more confident they get.

The problem-solving environment needs to provide:


Take time to sit back and let children work things out for themselves. Too often we leap in to help or assist a child facing a problem. When we wait to see if a child can solve the problem for themselves, we give them agency, even during the first year of life. Maybe they will ask for help – this is also a solution to a problem. Our role is to decide how much help we give, always involving the child in the solution. We want to build up their agency without building up frustration - a fine line but an important one to get right.

Highly appealing collaborative projects

Collaborative projects encourage possibility thinking, making plans and solution strategies.

Support and extend the children’s possibility thinking and vocabulary. What if we try this…? We could. .? How about…?

Talk about projects and make plans together, “You want to make a castle out of these boxes. How can we make it really big?” “What about windows? Do we want those?” “What shall we do with the boxes we don’t use?”

Talk about solution strategies together. “We need another chair to make this train fit four people. Where shall we put it? “Shall we try using another paint brush?” “Great idea, how about putting the bridge here, away from this table?”

 Opportunities to manipulate tools

Tools are clearly significant in developing physical skills but they are also crucially important for developing problem-solving skills. Every time a child manipulates a tool, ‘planning of sequential acts that lead to a goal’ are actively encouraged. Planning and reaching goals are the central part of problem-solving. And the good news is that children’s errors and successes are equally valuable. The negative feedback that children receive when they cannot achieve a goal (gripping a spoon the wrong way means that they cannot get the food in their mouths) spurs them on to be more efficient the next time. They will find another solution.

Offer a range of fun, varied, challenging and open-ended tools, such as construction, mud kitchen, water/sand tray, woodwork, garden tools, loose parts with tools (stones, shells, logs, planks, crates, tyres, tubes, etc., along with relevant tools, such as a trowel with stones and shells) musical instruments, etc.

Opportunities to revisit favourite activities over and over

Revisiting favourite activities enables children to become experts! They become keen to initiate and solve problems as they become ever more familiar with the activity. They can test out new ideas and solutions, widening and deepening their expertise.


Children are wired to be curious and resourceful. They love to explore, and the more space and freedom they are given, supported by powerful interventions from adults, the more they can plan, consider, think, and investigate.

Confident problem-solvers are more likely to approach problems independently, rather than relying on an adult for the answers. We need to present challenge as a welcome part of our everyday life, rather than a separate compartment named ‘difficult’. When the environment is inviting, engaging and supportive, we build powerful problem-solvers for the future.


  1. Keen R, The Development of Problem Solving in Young Children: A Critical Cognitive Skill Department of Psychology, University of Virginia 2011

  2. Arc Pathway Problem Solving Strand of Learning

About the author:

Helen Garnett is a mother of 4, and a committed and experienced early years consultant. She has a wealth of experience in teaching, both in the primary and early years sectors. She co-founded a pre-school in 2005 where she developed a keen interest in early intervention, leading her into international work for the early years sector. Helen cares passionately about young children and connection. As a result, she wrote her first book, “Developing Empathy in the Early Years: a guide for practitioners for which she won the Professional Books category at the 2018 Nursery World Awards, and “Building a Resilient Workforce in the Early Years, published by Early Years Alliance in June 2019. She also writes articles for early years magazines, such as Nursery World, Early Years Teacher Organisation, QA Education, Teach Early Years, and Early Years Educator.

Helen is the co-founder and Education Director at Arc Pathway, an early years platform for teachers and parents.

Helen can be contacted via LinkedIn.

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