Updated: Jun 24, 2019
This century has seen an extraordinarily fast rate of knowledge growth. Some even estimate that the amount of technological knowledge in the world is doubling every two years. Added to this is the fact that many of the technological skills used today will be obsolete in less than a few years. Teaching children facts in school no longer makes sense to prepare them for the futures ahead of them.
That's why children need to learn both content and the skills to apply and transform their knowledge, in order to keep learning and adjusting to change. But what are these skills, and how can you help your children to develop them?
Two of the most important skills for 21st century learning are problem solving and critical thinking. Problem-solving skills have even been linked to lower rates of depression and suicide. We've pulled together five ideas to focus on developing these skills at home.
1. Role-Play Problems
Problem solving isn't just about maths and engineering. We're all constantly problem solving in our every day lives, and many of these problems have a social aspect.
Practicing problem-solving skills for social situations will help children negotiate all those tricky situations they encounter in school and with friends. We all know some adults who could do with some practice in these too!
For younger children, make this a fun game by cracking out costumes, props etc. You'll probably have to lead with some imaginative problems and then see where the role play takes you. For example start with "We are in a boat and I can see a shark coming. What shall we do first?" (OK so it's not a social situation from school, but it's way more fun!) As the plot of your scenario develops, you can ask further questions to encourage problem solving. If you have friends or siblings available, step out and leave them to it while you enjoy a cup of coffee!
Role playing can work with older children, but you'll have to play a more grown up version. Practice using steps to solve problems they have encountered or are likely to encounter in real life. Suggested steps are: identify the problem, consider why it's a problem, brainstorm solutions, evaluate solutions, put into action. Role playing aspects of the problem can help them formulate better solutions. Tell them adults do this too!
Time: 15-30 minutes
Equipment: Your inner-child (costumes and props optional)
Best for: Ages 3+
2. Create an Invention
The design thinking process is the traditional method for coming up with an invention and it's easy to have your child follow it using the steps below either on their own or with a friend/sibling:
i. Empathise: Think about the problems they face in their lives every day (getting out of bed, remembering to do their homework, tidying their room) and list as many of these as they can. You could help with this by also coming up with ideas at the same time.
ii. Define: Choose one of these problems to focus on. This might be one that they think is most pressing or will be most interesting to solve. Make sure they understand this problem fully.
iii. Ideate: Come up with as many solutions as they can. The idea here is to think of as many solutions as they can, not to focus in on one idea. It's fun to make this into a game - what's the worst solution they can come up with? This stage is really important as it helps children to think about how there are multiple ways to solve a problem.
iv. Prototype: Choose one or several solutions and develop these into an invention. You can leave children to it at this stage for half an hour or so. You can check back in to ask questions and focus on problems with their design by asking questions like "What sort of materials would this be made out of?" "Why did you choose to do it this way?" "How does it....?" etc.
v. Share: Finally allow them to present their new invention to you and perhaps to other family members. They might start by telling you the problem they were solving and then explaining their solution.
Time: 1 hour +
Equipment: Paper, pencil (ideally a large A1 sheet of paper)
Best for: A structured activity time, adaptable to ages 5+
3. Construct a Spaghetti Tower
It's a classic, but so simple and effective at developing problem solving, along with engineering skills. Give children a pack of spaghetti and some marshmallows (or tape as an alternative) and give them a set amount of time to build the tallest tower they can.
You may want to start by demonstrating the use of pyramids in their construction, or let them work out the best way entirely by themselves!
This is a fun activity to do with friends or siblings either working in a team or pitted against each other to build the tallest tower.
Time: 15-30 minutes
Equipment: spaghetti, tape or marshmallows
Best for: A rainy day when you have some time to spare, ages 5+
4. Build a Rube Goldberg Machine
This is the advanced version of the Spaghetti Tower! A Rube Goldberg machine is a machine designed to carry out a simple task in an overly complicated way. You could spend literally hours watching home videos of people's creations to get you started.
You'll start to notice 'Take 43' etc. before videos. Emphasise that this is because something went wrong on each of the previous 42 attempts. This is problem solving at its best! They'll need to constantly test and iterate to get their machines to work. It's really quite addictive!
There are a lot of instructional videos and step-by-step guides online to get you started on building a simple machine. For your first machine, it's probably best to choose an idea to follow and then build on extra sections afterwards.
Time: 1 hour +
Equipment: anything and everything around the house!
Best for: Working collaboratively with you/a friend/a sibling, ages 8+
5. Programme a Robot
There's really nothing like programming or coding to get children problem solving. As they write their code or drag and drop their programming blocks, there will frequently be things that don't work as they expect. There's no answer book, so it's up to them to work out what's going on and the satisfaction they get when they do is unbeatable.
Granted this one's a bit more difficult to do at home unless you're prepared to fork out for a robotics kit. At our classes we use the Invent Blocks kits because you build them yourself from a simple circuit board. However, there are plenty of cheaper and easier to set up kits available if your child has an interest and you're prepared to invest in one.
A free way to get children programming is by using Scratch. I'd be surprised if your child hadn't already used Scratch or similar programming software in school already, so they'll be familiar with how it works. There are loads of ideas and projects on the Scratch website to get them started.
Equipment: Computer or tablet (optional - robotics kit)
Best for: Tech fans, ages 8+
If you want to get your child more involved in problem-solving activities with a focus on creativity and collaboration, take a look at our Inventors & Makers classes running in Ealing and West London.