Beginning in infancy and continuing throughout the entire lifespan, problems come in countless shapes and sizes, and further, their occurrence is never-ending. This makes being a strong problem-solver one of the most important skills that children need in the short- and in the long-term. While children have many natural drives surrounding the desire to solve problems, they need substantial guidance to learn and hone problem-solving skills to be effective, efficient, and confident. In this article, we will take a look at problem-solving and strategies to best promote strong skills in kids.

What is a ‘problem’?

Problems with which children are confronted can range on a continuum from those of everyday life to those that are quite rare or extreme. Regardless of the problem being faced, at its core, any problem has several elements in common—it warrants wanting or needing to achieve a particular goal, where the actions needed to solve the problem are not always clear, could be quite unknown, and/or might have steps that must to be carried out in a certain order for success(1).

The stages of cognitive development and the developing brain

Thanks in large part to psychologist Jean Piaget’s stage theory of cognitive development, published in the 1930’s, we know that children pass through four stages; which are sensorimotor (from birth to about age 2), preoperational (about age 2 to 7), operational (about 7 to 11), and formal operational (about 12 and on). As children move through the stages, their thinking becomes more “logical” and their ability to accurately and efficiently solve problems rises in tandem(2). 

Now functional neuroimaging has allowed developmental researchers to see the structural and functional development of the brain related to cognition (thinking). They have discovered that the order in which the cortex matures is in parallel with the cognitive milestones observed behaviorally(3). The cortex is the largest part of the human brain and is responsible for many cognitive functions needed for problem-solving, such as perception, awareness, attention, memory, thought, and language.

Knowing this is important for parents because it in essence means that a child’s ability to solve problems is somewhat bound by their brain development. However, what we also know is that positive environmental experiences are critical for optimal brain development, and this is what can ensure that an individual child moves through to the highest stage possible of cognitive development.

Making the most of the stages of cognitive development for promoting problem-solving

Understanding how children interact with the environment during the various stages allows you to structure the environment in a manner that best promotes problem-solving(4.5.6.) Let’s take a look…


Infants and young toddlers learn about the world and tackle the problems they encounter through interacting with the environment physically using their senses; hence the name ‘sensorimotor’.  Children this age therefore want and need to touch, hear, see, smell, and taste almost everything with which they come into contact. This is why they put things in their mouths! It’s also why “don’t touch” is so difficult for them. Restriction can undermine the development of skills that lay the foundation for problem-solving. Since many things can be hazardous, be sure to provide many items and materials that are not dangerous for them to explore physically.

Secondly, problem-solving at this age is a great deal about cause-and-effect. Babies and young toddlers are learning that they have the ability to make actions occur and then they work hard cognitively to observe and figure all this out. For example, it is common for them to drop items from their high chair, which can be to the annoyance of parents. Mealtime should be about eating, but when the meal is finished, you can provide non-food and non-breakable objects for them to drop so they can observe what happens (just be prepared to pick up for them).

Third, a critical skill needed for problem solving is mental representation. The first step is the development of object permanence, which is knowing that an object (including people) still exists even when it cannot be seen. Games like peek-a-boo and hide and seek are excellent for promoting this concept.


Piaget used the term ‘operation’ in each of the next three stages to indicate solving a problem in a logical manner according to universal rules, similar to an operation in mathematics. For children 2 to 7, they are not yet fully capable of thinking in such a manner; hence the term ‘preoperational’. As you can see, this is quite a long stage as making this shift in the brain is a substantial process.

Children this age have not yet quite become fully competent in mental representation, but with the brain developing in areas related to memory, this is coming. To promote this in children of this age, playing memory games can be very beneficial.

In this stage, the concept of conservation takes center stage. Conservation is knowing that regardless of its appearance, the amount of something remains the same. If you’ve ever tried to give a couple of four-year-olds the same amount of juice in cups of different shapes and sizes and heard the complaint, “He got more!” you are witnessing the lack of an understanding of conservation in action.

Kids benefit greatly from ample hands-on practice with items and objects with which to experiment. As they play in a sandbox for example, and get firsthand knowledge of the amount of sand it takes to fill various containers, they will begin to assimilate this knowledge and move toward the mental ability to understand the principle of conservation. Doing so makes them much more efficient when solving problems, like how to divide 2 cupcakes among 4 friends.

Concrete Operational

At around age 7, children move into concrete operations. Now they can do a fairly good job of mental representation, although still limited, and also have made leaps and bounds with language, which facilitates thought and problem-solving. Note the word ‘concrete’ in the name of this stage. When we use the word concrete to reflect thinking, it means taking something literally. It has to be seen to be believed, and so is very bound in the physical world. Therefore, many hands-on experiences for solving problems are also essential at this age. Experiments for instance allow children 7 to 11 to hone the skills based on the concepts they are now able to understand that are crucial for problem-solving, such as seriation (ordering) and classification (grouping).

Getting kids talking with you about a problem and how to solve it both takes advantage of language skills and facilitates the development of mental representation and abstract thinking. Some questions to ask children are:

·       What are you trying to do?

·       What do you want to have happen?

·       What do you think you need to do to make that happen?

·       How will you try out your different ideas?

·       What do you think will happen if you try x, y, z?

·       How will you know when you find the best way to solve the problem?

Formal Operational

When children approach adolescence, the brain is also mature enough now to be able to handle one of the heaviest cognitive loads needed for successfully solving problems—abstract thinking. Essentially, this means the ability to consider many hypothetical solutions to a problem without having to physically try them all out. The main mechanism is reasoning, specifically ‘hypothetico-deductive reasoning’, which is the ability to identify the components of a problems and arrive at a solution by drawing a logical conclusion.

To help your teen get opportunities to do this, pose a wide range of scenarios for them and have discussions that include you prompting them to think of a variety of outcomes. These could be lofty such as “If you could have all the resources needed, how would you…..solve world hunger, keep kids from dropping out of school, make it possible to live on the moon”, etc. They can also be very practical and relevant to each individual, such as “What is your strategy for passing geometry?, How are you going to find your dream summer job?, What is your plan to tell your friend you don’t like it when she gossips?”,

Closing Thoughts

The nature of life is that problems keep coming. This can cause quite a lot of stress and anxiety for kids if they do not have a solid handle on problem-solving. Rather than being caught in these reactions, you can promote strong problem-solving skills in your kids through keeping in mind their developmental cognitive abilities, and guiding them in increasingly advanced problem-solving throughout childhood and adolescence. They will not only benefit from being able to effectively and efficiently face what comes their way, they will be able to do so with confidence!

Recommended Resources



1. Unterrainer, J. M., & Owen, A. M. (2006). Planning and problem solving: From neuropsychology to functional neuroimagingJournal of Physiology-Paris99, 308-317.

2. University of Iowa. (Retrieved June, 2018). Comparing Piaget and Vygotsky. Iowa City, IA: Author.

3. Casey, B. J., Tottenham, N., Liston, C., & Durston, S. (2005). Imaging the developing brain: What have we learned about cognitive development? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(3), 105.

4. Miller, S. A., Booth-Church, E., & Poole, C. (Retrieved June, 2018). Ages & stages: How children learn to solve problems. New York, NY: Scholastic.

5. Ojose, B. (2008). Applying Piaget’s theory of cognitive development to mathematics instruction. The Mathematics Educator, 18(1), 26-30.

6. Kirkley, J. (2003). Principles of teaching problem solving. Bloomington, MN: Plato Learning.


About the Author:

McManis, MEd, PhD, is an educational psychologist who specializes in learning and cognition. She uses her training and experience to promote optimal outcomes through translating research into meaningful practice.