Description of the frame

This frame encompasses children's learning and development with respect to:

  • exploring the world through natural curiosity, in ways that engage the mind, the senses, and the body;
  • making meaning of their world by asking questions, testing theories, solving problems, and engaging in creative and analytical thinking;
  • the innovative ways of thinking about and doing things that naturally arise with an active curiosity, and applying those ideas in relationships with others, with materials, and with the environment.

The learning encompassed by this frame supports collaborative problem solving and bringing innovative ideas to relationships with others.

In connection with this frame, it is important for educators to consider the importance of problem solving in all contexts – not only in the context of mathematics – so that children will develop the habit of applying creative, analytical, and critical-thinking skills in all aspects of their lives.

For a wide range of practical examples of how children and educators interact to make thinking and learning about problem solving and innovating visible, in connection with related overall and specific expectations in the Kindergarten program, see the expectation charts for this frame in Chapter 4.6.

Problem solving and innovating: What are we learning from research?

Play … is the genesis of innovation, and allows us to deal with an ever-changing world. (Brown, 2009, p. 199)

We don't have to teach [children] to ask “why?” because inside each human being is the need to understand the reasons, the meaning of the world around us and the meaning of our life. … But children not only ask “why?” They are also able to find the answers to their whys, to create their own theories. … Observe and listen to children because when they ask “why?” they are not simply asking for the answer from you. They are requesting the courage to find a collection of possible answers. (Rinaldi, 2004, p. 2)

Researchers acknowledge that the need to engage in problem solving and critical and creative thinking has “always been at the core of learning and innovation” (Trilling & Fadel, 2009, p. 50). Children in Kindergarten are growing up in a competitive, globally connected, and technologically intensive world. Educators need to provide opportunities, explicitly and intentionally, for children to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they will need for solving a wide variety of problems. It is therefore essential for children to develop the skills required for problem solving, creative and critical thinking, and innovating; confidence, curiosity, and the willingness to take risks and to see mistakes as opportunities for learning; and the ability to collaborate and to build and maintain relationships. Through the exploration and inquiry that are part of play, young children develop these skills. For example, every time children ask “why” questions, look for a tool that will help them with their task, ask questions about how something works, or create a game and explain how to play it to their friends, they are showing an essentially creative approach to the world around them.

Children entering Kindergarten bring with them the capacity to wonder and imagine and the ability to discover and experiment as means of finding answers. When children are able to explore the world around them with their natural curiosity and exuberance, they are fully engaged and see themselves as contributing members of their world. This creative approach is a central aspect of both problem solving and innovating.

Children's engagement with problem solving

Children develop problem-solving strategies from first-hand explorations and from exchanging ideas with other children and with adults, all of which can help them to see things from different points of view. Children develop “working theories” as answers to their questions by observing and listening, and by exploring, discussing, and representing. Their theories become increasingly useful for making sense of the world and for giving them some control over the problem-solving process.

Children's innate capacity to ask questions and recognize problems may in fact encourage them to make connections that lead to innovative thinking and solutions that are meaningful and relevant to them. Their resilience and initiative develop as they persevere through many attempts at solving a problem. “As children gain greater experience, knowledge, and skills, the theories they develop become more widely applicable and have more connecting links between them” (New Zealand Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 44). They approach problems with the optimistic attitude that a solution is possible and with the confidence that they are able to create that solution.

Children's engagement with innovating

Education, for most people, means trying to lead the child to resemble the typical adult of his society. … But for me, education means making creators. … You have to make inventors, innovators, not conformists. (Bringuier, 1980, p. 132, citing Piaget)

Making things and then making those things better is at the core of humanity. Ever since early man started his first fire or clubbed his first seal, humans have been tinkerers. … Throughout history there has been an acceptance of the intuitive sense that peak learning results from direct experience. (Libow Martinez & Stager, 2013, p. 11)

Innovating may be described as creating, or improving upon, a product or a process. For example, innovation may result in the following:

  • a product that is more efficient, compact, interesting, or aesthetically pleasing; safer; or less fragile
  • a process that is easier to understand, more accessible, safer, more environmentally responsible, or more accurate

Kindergarten children are engaging in innovative thinking when they do any of the following:

  • ask or respond to “what if …?” and “what would happen if …?” questions
  • take the risk to try something they have never done before
  • try a different approach to solving a problem after making a mistake or finding that something does not work
  • use materials or tools from one play area for a different purpose in another area
  • modify a structure or building procedure to meet their needs better or make it safer
  • test a structure such as a marble run and make changes to improve how it works
  • explain their thinking regarding a change or adaptation
  • make changes to materials or resources in the classroom to meet their needs (e.g., move chairs, recreate a name wall when writing in the dramatic play area)
  • design and make a tool for a specific purpose
  • create music, visual art work, or dances, and make improvements to them
  • design and create items to use in their dramatic play, and create unique names for unusual shapes or imaginary animals
  • test their theories, and persevere in their attempts to solve a problem
  • use a variety of attributes when sorting or patterning, or re-sort items using a different attribute
  • transfer skills learned in one context to another
  • collaborate with peers to create and modify things, using their own ideas and building on the ideas of others
  • consider someone else's perspective when making adaptations

A graphic showing the silhouettes of two children, a boy and a girl, with the caption “Innovators”. Around the silhouettes are numerous speech bubbles that read as follows, clockwise from top: “investigate”, “take risks”, “collaborate”, “explore”, “communicate”, “identify problems”, “make connections”, “think critically”, “are confident”, “are adaptable and flexible”, “are open-minded”, “are curious”, “ask questions”, “persevere”, “think creatively”, and “show resilience”.

Figure 5. This illustration shows “what innovators do” and the traits they possess. Children who are encouraged to innovate develop habits of mind and characteristics that serve them throughout their lives.

Supporting children's development in problem solving and innovating

Teaching shifts from focusing on covering all required content to focusing on the learning process, developing students' ability to lead their own learning and to do things with their learning. [Educators] … are partners with students in deep learning tasks characterised by exploration, connectedness and broader, real-world purposes. (Fullan & Langworthy, 2014, p. 7)

Educators who are in an inquiry stance recognize that learning occurs in social contexts and that interactions and conversations are vitally important for learning. They also actively support children's learning by providing opportunities for children to engage in hands-on investigations that are relevant to the children. They use strategies such as modelling and conjecturing, and engage in shared thinking with the children so that the children can learn to identify problems and propose innovative solutions (ADEEWR, 2009, p. 15).

When educators take a purposefully curious approach to new experiences and ideas rather than acting as the experts, children are more likely to engage in creative problem solving and more complex play and inquiry (Gopnik, 2011). Posing questions such as the following can provoke children to ask additional questions, to think logically when solving the problem, and to use both language and non-verbal means to represent their thinking:

  • “How can we make the building stronger?”
  • “How can we attract more birds and butterflies to our school garden?”
  • “How can we explain what snow is to someone who lives in a hot part of the world?”
  • “How can we help someone who doesn't speak English understand what happened in the story?”
  • “Why does our modelling clay keep drying out?”
  • “How can we arrange our picture books so that you can look at them more often?”
  • “How can we keep the dramatic play area from getting so messy all the time?”

Similarly, explicitly identifying innovations in the world around them will enable children to recognize the impact of others' innovations on their own environment and experiences. For example, educators can ask such questions as the following to provoke children to consider the value of creativity in a range of areas:

  • “How do you suppose people got a drink of water at school before the water fountain was invented?”
  • “What do you think the artist was trying to do when she created this sculpture?”
  • “I wonder what winter coats were like before zippers were used.”
  • “I used to send a letter to your parents on paper, but now I send them an e-mail. Why do you think I made that change?”

Innovation requires the ability to look at something in a new and interesting way. Innovation in Kindergarten may not result in a new and unique product or process, but it is an important experience for the children to see that they can create something new and different. Educators can support and encourage Kindergarten children in innovative thinking in such ways as the following:

  • begin with the curiosity, questions, wonderings, and interests of the children
  • engage children by asking questions, such as “I wonder why …?” or “What if …?”
  • provide an open and flexible learning environment where children can apply their skills to improve some aspect of their immediate world
  • encourage children to take creative risks during play
  • model the use of language associated with problem solving and innovating
  • listen to children's hypotheses and make their thinking visible through conversation
  • encourage children to use language and non-verbal means, such as drawing diagrams, to explain their hypotheses to others
  • scaffold children's learning intentionally throughout an exploration project
  • support the use of multiple attempts to solve a problem
  • provide opportunities for children to become aware of the creative significance of the innovation process (e.g., the process of mixing paints to create a new colour, or of exploring the design and possible adaptation of a stable structure)
  • emphasize the importance of perseverance, and encourage children to see “failures” and “mistakes” as rich learning opportunities

Questions for reflection: How does the learning environment support the development of children's problem-solving and innovating capacities?

  • How can we ensure that the ways in which we provoke and extend children's problem-solving and innovating capacities reflect our view of children as “capable, competent, curious, and rich in potential and experience”?
  • How can we ensure that our program and learning environment enable children to initiate purposeful problem solving?
  • In what ways can we encourage children to use their imagination and their prior knowledge to find solutions and test whether they work?
  • How can we encourage children to take risks and to persevere despite unsuccessful attempts to find a solution?
  • In what ways can we demonstrate that “not knowing” is a necessary attitude with which to approach solving problems in a creative way?

The role of play in inquiry, problem solving, and innovating

Our [Kindergarten] program promotes the development of self-regulation, social-emotional learning, inquiry skills, and play-based learning that fosters creativity, imagination and problem solving. (Fullan, 2013, p. 11)

Play is a vehicle for learning and lies at the core of innovation and creativity. When playing, children for generations have used their abundant imagination to create new and different uses for such things as a stick, a rock, or a box. Children engaged in play begin to wonder and experiment as they interact with materials, the learning environment, and their peers. During play, they test initial ideas, ask more questions, and retest their new thinking. Their theories are validated or challenged all through this process. The educators observe and wonder along with the children, and ask further questions to help the children clarify and test their theories.

However, educators are also aware that an over-reliance on questions can create a context of “interrogation”, where children have to stop what they are doing and verbalize. Educators know that many times, if they observe in silence and document their observations, their questions will be answered through the children's actions. They use this silent time to consider which questions (probably only one or two) are most relevant in order to deepen children's engagement, and often wait to offer these questions to the children when revisiting the documentation.

In response to a child's play, questions, and representations of thinking and learning, educators may ask open-ended and probing questions such as the following:

In the blocks area:

  • “What is your goal for this structure? What do you want it to do?”
  • “What isn't working? What do you need to make it work?”
  • “What are you investigating?”
  • “What materials are you thinking of using?”
  • “Which tools will you need?”
  • “What are you predicting will happen?”
  • “I noticed that you …. Why did you do that? What was your plan?”
  • “Did things turn out the way you thought they would? Why? Were there any surprises?”
  • “What would happen if …? Why?”
  • “Who else could help you with this?”

In the dramatic play area:

  • “How did your friend show you what she was feeling without using words?”
  • “What did you use to create the shelves for your market stand?”
  • “How will people know who is the chef in the bakery and who is going to take their orders?”
  • “What kind of voice would you use if you were sad? How would you change your voice if you were angry?”

In the visual arts area:

  • “What gave you the idea for this picture?”
  • “What changes have you made to improve it?”
  • “What was your first idea? How has it changed? Why has it changed?”

See Chapter 1.2, “Play-Based Learning in a Culture of Inquiry”.

This whole creative process also presents abundant opportunities to document children's learning as it takes place. The educators and the learners are researchers in the inquiry in which they are involved. The educators record the child's attempts at solving a problem, including changes or adaptations the child has made. Together they interpret and reinterpret theories and events and, in doing so, they make the learning visible. The educators and the child can reflect together on the learning.

See Chapter 1.4, “Assessment and Learning in Kindergarten”.

Educator team reflection

One of the things we were excited about as we observed children engaged in play and exploration was the potential for teachable moments. We loved hearing children ask questions that allowed us to answer them and extend their vocabulary or knowledge about something.

After a while, we realized that every time we provided a quick answer to a question or pondering, their interest in it diminished. After reflecting on this, we began to respond to a question from a child with another question from us. We kept in mind the notion that it is better to ask than to tell, whenever possible. This kept us in an inquiry stance more often.

We were amazed at the innovative ideas that emerged when we stopped answering questions and stayed in the inquiry stance and simply asked more questions, demonstrating our interest and curiosity along with the children. We have really enjoyed our journey as co-learners with our young learners.

The role of learning in the outdoors in problem solving and innovating

Outdoor play also supports children's problem-solving skills and nurtures their creativity, as well as providing rich opportunities for their developing imagination, inventiveness and resourcefulness. (Council for Learning outside the Classroom, 2009, p. 1)

A rich integrated curriculum, the kind that needs the reality of the outdoors, serves children well. When we serve children well, we predicate a better future. (Rivkin, 1995, p. 81)

See “Laying the Foundations for Citizenship and Environmental Stewardship” in Chapter 2.1, “Thinking about Belonging and Contributing”.

The outdoor world offers an abundance of resources and materials for supporting problem solving and innovating. Educators and children can interact in a variety of learning environments, including the schoolyard, fields, and trails in the school neighbourhood. Plants and animals (e.g., an insect) that are found in the outdoors can give rise to many wonderings and discoveries. For example, the opportunity to observe the changes in the seasons from the perspective of a tree can lead to rich questions, discussion, and further learning. Children's imaginations are activated as they try to use natural materials for various purposes and to explore and care for the natural environment.

Learning in the outdoors provides opportunities for exploration through play. Dyment and Bell (2006) reported that there was a significant increase in children's engagement in learning opportunities such as investigating insects, exploring rocks, and looking at plants after their asphalt and turf-based playgrounds were modified with more diverse landscaping and design features. In addition, play and interactions in nature develop the capacity for creativity, problem solving, and intellectual development in children (Kellert, 2005).

Educators can pose questions such as the following to assist children in their inquiries in the outdoors:

  • “How do you think a tree knows it is spring?”
  • “What are your thoughts about why a tree loses its leaves in the fall?”
  • “What do you think a tree needs to grow big and strong?”
  • “In your view, what can we do to help and protect our tree?”
  • “If you could have a conversation with a tree, what would you like to ask it?”