I’m Not Slow, I’m Just Warming Up - How to Work with Different Styles of Preschool Problem Solving

21 February 2019

I’m Not Slow, I’m Just Warming Up - How to Work with Different Styles of Preschool Problem Solving

With young children, it’s important to realize that just as there are many different kinds of personalities, there are also many different mental approaches they may use when working on a problem or activity. Consider when a group of preschoolers are given a problem to solve-- like a brand new art project. Everyone jumps in and gets busy. But one child simply sits and doesn’t start at all. It may seem to a casual observer that this child is not “on task” when she doesn’t immediately jump in. Why is she not moving at the same pace compared to the others?

Take a breath, relax and know that there is no reason to worry. This child is working hard internally, scanning her brain for as many high-quality ideas as possible to approach this new problem. Jumping immediately into a new problem or new use of a material may cause her brain to be too active. In turn, her brain will zero in too quickly and end her search before innovative ideas can occur. Her brain has naturally slowed down, actually lowering its level of neural activity, to consider what she will do next. It’s these low levels of brain activity make it possible to get started with ideas, especially for those who are considered highly creative.

Even with adults, slow thinking or acting behaviors are often viewed as unproductive. But these behaviors too may actually be low levels of neural brain activity, an essential first step in the creative process. For example, in one study, researchers compared highly creative people to more average ones. They found that highly creative individuals were more likely to exhibit low brain energy levels during complex problem solving than their more typical counterparts. And the reverse-- high brain arousal, or getting very busy really fast-- was associated with less creative, unoriginal responses.

At the same time, it’s key to know that low brain activity levels don’t last throughout an entire creative process. Later, when your preschooler is settling on a new combination of thoughts or getting a creative idea, her brain will turn up its neural activity level. This is when they experience the excitement of the creative idea, what we call the “Aha moment.”

It’s equally essential to know that brain activity can vary for your child depending on the activity itself. For example, with familiar materials or activities like crayons and markers, your child may get started immediately, just scribbling busily away. In contrast, a new, challenging activity may cause them to stop and think before starting. They may pause, going over things mentally before beginning. So, you may wonder, why are they not moving at their “normal” pace?

What's important to remember here is that it’s essential to allow very young children their own, individual approach to a problem or project. Sometimes it may be slow and measured. At other times, their approach may be fast and immediate. For their rapidly developing brain, every new problem deserves a new perspective!

You can support your preschooler’s approach to a problem or project, whether it be slow, fast, or in between. Here are five easy ways to work with different styles of preschool problem solving while fostering their creative process:

  1. Be flexible in scheduling time for creative work. Being pressured to stick to a strict time frame will inhibit the first stage of creative thought and considering how to solve a problem. So, include a bit of extra time in your schedule for a potential “slow start” to an activity. Even an extra 5 minutes of “tinkering” will do wonders for getting into the problem-solving groove. If you’re in search of specific ideas on scheduling, check out our article, How to Plan Your Preschool Day - 7 Basics for Early Learners here.
  2. Focus on the process versus a final product. Don’t worry about having a finished product at the end of every activity. It’s perfectly ok to allow projects to be completed at another time in your day, or even later in the week. This will give your preschooler time to focus on the process and enjoying it in and of itself! Plus, this also allows space to develop their own creative process and to think about their work without the worry of having to finish it on time or along with everyone else.
  3. Ask if help is needed. Sometimes your child’s creative process can be encouraged by a few, simple questions. For example, when using a new material, asking if your child understands how it works can jumpstart start new ideas and creative thinking. At the same time, be careful not to barrage them with lots of questions. Give them space to work things out for themselves. Our article, Children Learn by Doing - 4 Ways to Boost Early Education with Active Learning has more ideas on how to encourage preschool independence through play.
  4. In case of mistakes, have extra materials on hand. When you’re setting up your project’s materials, casually saying that there are more available can lessen your child’s anxiety of making just one, perfect attempt. “I have extra sheets of paper here if anybody needs one,” lets your preschooler know that there are more materials on hand in the event he needs to start over. For more ideas about on materials that work specifically for preschoolers, check out our Materials Guide right here!
  5. Acknowledge your child's efforts to spark their progress. Some children eagerly start and then quickly finish projects. Then, there are other preschoolers who will start slowly, if at all. And when they finally start, they will eventually finish. Whatever stage a child is at in the creative process, it’s important to acknowledge each effort.  For example, try saying, “I like how you started using red in your drawing. Have you thought about another color maybe?” Or, “Let’s think about what you would like to do with these pieces of felt next. What shapes or colors do you like?” The idea is to accept your child where they are in their process and recognize it. Then, use this as your basis to encourage them further. An activity like Splashy Splotch Painting is an excellent choice because it fits all styles of preschool problem solving. And if you're in need of ways to talk with your child about their creative process, try our article, Talking with Young Children About Their Creations.

Considering current brain research can help us all take a very different view of “slow starters.” You can use this approach to strengthen your child’s development as they grow to face new problems as well as creative opportunities!

Want to know more about how to support your preschooler’s creativity as they grow? Check out our 4 part educational series on Children’s Creativity, starting here with Part 1, Four Essential Skills

Don't forget to let us know what you think! What worked best for your preschool planning? You can let us know your feedback right here.