Online scams, misleading advertising, and dubious news reports—the challenges of today’s media landscape mean that teaching children critical thinking skills is more important than ever. But critical thinking—the ability to find information, analyze it, and make decisions based on it—allows us to do far more than recognize deception. When we solve puzzles, find our way through a tricky situation, propose solutions to a problem, and balance pros and cons, we are using our powers of critical thinking.
But aren’t young children too immature to learn critical thinking skills? A focus on language and plenty of time for talking things through is the key, along with open-ended challenges and investigations.In fact, early childhood is the perfect time to acquire the building blocks for critical thinking. Why? Because young children love to ask “why?”—and that’s the foundation of critical thinking! A good early learning program will encourage children to ask questions, and it will help them develop a rich vocabulary to do so. Young children can also make comparisons and contrasts; understand that there are different points of view; use their imaginations; explain what did happen and predict what will happen; and dream up solutions to problems. When we break down what “critical thinking” actually means, it becomes clear that most parents will probably want their child’s school to teach such skills.
How do early childhood programs do this best? A focus on language and plenty of time for talking things through is the key, along with open-ended challenges and investigations. When considering an early learning program, look for signs that critical thinking is encouraged: Is plenty of time devoted to pre-literacy and communication skills—and to conversations that are not teacher-directed? Are there opportunities for children to work together on problems, fail, and try again to find solutions? Are various viewpoints taken into account? These are the elements that develop in young learners the skills to help them figure out what’s true, what’s useful, and what works.
- How does this school teach and foster critical thinking skills?
- What is your school's approach to problem solving with young children?
- Read to your child and then talk about what you read! Ask “Why did this happen?” “How else could this character have behaved?” or “What’s another way this story could have ended?”” This type of open-ended question gets your child thinking in more creative and analytical ways.
- Give children time and space to figure things out themselves. When we jump in to make a task easier or neater, kids learn that someone else has the answers, that their solutions are unnecessary. Let them try, fail, and try again—this teachers them to persevere, find creative solutions, and take pride in their achievements.
- Through play, introduce the idea of a hypothesis: “What do you think will happen to your car if we make the ramp steeper? Let’s try it. What did happen? Let’s try tilting it less and see what happens!” The scientific method becomes second nature when introduced early, in a non-threatening manner.