Cognitive Development
Promoting Problem-Solving
Core Finding: CD-SOL-C01

Problem solving abilities develop as the child's other abilities, such as motor and cognitive abilities, develop.


Problem-solving involves strategising how to achieve a result when the path to that result is uncertain. This is an important skill for a young child’s learning in educational and everyday contexts. Formulating ideas, trying out these ideas, and deciding what to accept or reject from experience heightens children's understanding of how the world around them works.

To be successful problem solvers, children need to be curious, persistent, and flexible in their thinking. They need to work toward a goal and be confident of their ability to reach a solution.
  1. Segatti, L., Brown-DuPaul, J., & Keyes, T. L. (2003). Using Everyday Materials To Promote Problem Solving in Toddlers. Young Children, 58(5), 12–18.

Babies learn to solve problems by examining and learning about new objects and people they encounter. They then apply what they have learnt to new situations.

Babies are born with innate problem-solving tools called reflexes. Within an hour after birth, a baby will use her rooting and sucking reflexes to feed. At 2 months, babies become more alert and develop the eagerness to explore the world around them. By four months, babies develop muscle control and hand-eye coordination to bring toys and other objects to their mouths. This leads to greater exploration, experimentation, and the development of problem-solving abilities.

By eight months, babies start to enjoy playing with toys that respond to their actions. These experiences lay the groundwork for children's later understanding of cause-and-effect relationships. By their first year, children move to a more purposeful level of problem-solving as they develop their physical and motor abilities, such as being able to push aside a toy to reach another. 1-year-olds also begin to solve problems through observation and imitation. Children can learn to solve problems by imitating another person's actions and getting inputs from adults.

During toddlerhood, children become little scientists and use the “What would happen if..." approach to problem-solving. They experiment and manipulate objects, repeat their actions, and observe what happens in their persistent search for a solution.

Children can plan ahead to achieve a goal during the second year of life, with the earliest hints of this process beginning in the first year.

By 2, children begin to observe, think about the problem, and then, later on, remember what they saw. At this stage, children can also remember and imitate others to solve problems. For example, when two-year-olds want to open a part of a toy, they no longer shake and bang it as they would have done a few months ago. Instead, they recall watching how an adult opened it and use the same technique.

3-year-olds can use their imaginations to solve problems as they arise. They can use items to symbolically represent what they need. For example, if a child needs to make a "call" while playing, he can pretend that a box is a telephone. However, 3-year-olds sometimes see only one possible solution and will keep using that solution till they learn at a later age that there are other ways to solve problems. Hence, adult scaffolding (guidance) may sometimes be helpful at this stage for children to learn.

It is helpful to expose children to different experiences and environments, allowing them time to explore, learn by trial and error, and make mistakes in a safe environment. Understanding the different stages that children go through, and knowing when to provide the right scaffolding, whether by letting the child imitate you or learn from explicit instructions, helps them build problem-solving abilities.