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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, her 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 she was born with. Before she can respond to threats or problems by thinking about them, she has the ability to seek out food with her rooting reflex, and responds to shocking sounds or feelings with her Moro reflex. As she moves into more active babyhood, and starts exploring the world around her, she starts to take a more active role in her response to problems, and starts trying to work out how to respond to the world around her through trial and error.

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

Encouraging growth in problem-solving skills

As Baby moves into the next step of her problem-solving career, and the problems she needs 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 her to start thinking through solutions to problems, instead of having to start from the beginning and try something new every time.

  • Encourage her to use her 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 her plenty of self-directed, free-play time – even if she says she’s 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 her growing imagination.
  • Ask open-ended questions: Conversation is a great way to show Baby you care what she is thinking about, and to encourage her 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 her where she thinks the people you pass on the way to the grocery store are going, or how she thinks a book the two of you are reading together is going to end.
  • Start talking to her 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 her about taking a second to pause before she reacts, especially to things that upset her. A concrete way to talk about this is to ask her to breathe in and then breathe out. Giving her practice with waiting, which you can do by playing games where she has to wait for her turn, whether that means passing a ball or playing a simple board game, can also be helpful here.

As she grows, having strong problem-solving skills will help Baby grow up into a resilient, persistent kid who can handle any situation that comes her way, and she’s 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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