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Your toddler’s problem-solving skills in the third year

Have you ever run out of diapers when you and Baby were out and about during the day? That kind of situation is definitely a problem. And what did you do with that problem?

Did you:

  1. Find someone who looked like they might be the parent of another toddler, and ask if you could dip into their diaper stockpile?
  2. Hope the dirty diaper could last just a few minutes longer as you made a rush-trip either back home or to the store for a new one?
  3. Look around you for whatever materials you had on hand, and fashion a makeshift diaper from paper towels, some string, a couple of paperclips and a whole lot of hope?

No matter which of these answers you picked, the fact that Baby ended up freshly diapered in the end means that you had to engage in some problem-solving. These days, of you and Baby, you’re the one who probably has to do most of the solving when you start running into problems, but in the next year, their problem-solving skills will start to grow by leaps and bounds.

The evolution of problem-solving

The earliest stage of a toddler’s problem-solving skills is the reflexes they were born with. Before they can respond to threats or problems by thinking about them, they have the ability to seek out food with their rooting reflex, and responds to shocking sounds or feelings with their Moro reflex. As they move into more active babyhood, and starts exploring the world around them, they start to take a more active role in their response to problems, and starts trying to work out how to respond to the world around them through trial and error.

At this point in Baby’s development, in the time between their second and third birthday, they're going to start to move away from trial-and-error problem-solving, and will start to try working out solutions to the problems in their world in their head, before trying them out in real life. This is only just starting to become possible as both their attention span and their ability to think abstractly (which they show off every time they play pretend-games) grow.

Encouraging growth in problem-solving skills

As Baby moves into the next step of their problem-solving career, and the problems they need to solve start to get bigger and more complex – less “I am hungry and will cry until you feed me,” and more, “Susie took my toy and now I’m sad but the grown-ups will get mad if I push her to take it back” – there are different ways you can encourage them to start thinking through solutions to problems, instead of having to start from the beginning and try something new every time.

  • Encourage them to use their imagination: “Imagination” is another word for abstract thinking, which toddlers need before they can start thinking through problems and solutions in their heads before moving forward and trying to solve them using the best idea they’ve thought of. You can encourage your toddler’s development of imagination by leaving them plenty of self-directed, free-play time – even if they say they're bored. Open-ended toys like blocks and dress-up pieces are great choices for open-ended, imaginative play, because they leave it up to toddlers what the toys are meant to represent. Reading together, and just talking about your toddler’s thoughts, are also both great ways to encourage their growing imagination.
  • Ask open-ended questions: Conversation is a great way to show Baby you care what they are thinking about, and to encourage them to do more of it. Like any journalist will tell you, though, you’ll get more of a response from your interview-subject – or your toddler- by asking questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, questions that have an element of “what do you think about…” or “why do you think that is?” can really start to get a conversation going. These questions can come up naturally over the course of your day, but you can also turn them into a bit of a game by asking them where they think the people you pass on the way to the grocery store are going, or how they think a book the two of you are reading together is going to end.
  • Start talking to them about taking a moment to think before reacting: The ability to stop, take a breath, and try to think of a solution before reacting to a problem is one that plenty of adults could benefit from working on, too. You can give Baby a head-start by starting to talk to them about taking a second to pause before they react, especially to things that upset them. A concrete way to talk about this is to ask them to breathe in and then breathe out. Giving them practice with waiting, which you can do by playing games where they have to wait for their turn, whether that means passing a ball or playing a simple board game, can also be helpful here.

As they grow, having strong problem-solving skills will help Baby grow up into a resilient, persistent kid who can handle any situation that comes their way, and they're building those skills every day.

  • Carla Poole, Susan A. Miller, Ellen Booth Church. “Problem Solving in Action.” Scholastic. Scholastic Inc. Retrieved June 14 2017.
  • “Developmental Milestones: 12-36 Months.” Office of Child Development. University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved June 14 2017. 
  • “Learning and Development: Young Children 24-36 Months.” Better Brains for Babies. Georgia Division of Family and Children Services. Retrieved June 14 2017. 

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