Critical thinking

What Were They Thinking? Creative and Critical Thinking Exercises for Young Children

So often we shake our heads at kids (and adults for that matter!) and wonder, “What were they thinking?” We know the importance of thinking critically before acting and so we’re astounded when this doesn’t happen. And we know that some issues require creative problem solving, yet so many people give up and don’t feel they can think creatively. If we want our children to think about situations carefully, and if we want them to be able to offer innovative ideas, we must equip them with strong creative and critical thinking skills from the earliest ages.


Creative and critical thinking skills can be cultivated and strengthened like any other skill.


Types of Thinking

First, let’s understand that critical and creative thinking are related, but different skills. Creative thinking starts with a single idea and yields multiple options from that original idea. It is also known as divergent thinking, where you start with a core concept or problem or issue and create multiple choices from that.

Critical thinking is the opposite. It is the skill of taking lots of information and synthesizing it into one coherent thought, claim, or solution. It is also known as convergent thinking, where you take a multitude of data and information and make a final choice from that information.

Some activities build creative thinking; others develop critical thinking; and still others develop both at the same time. It’s important to know the difference so you engage in activities that improve all types of thinking in your child.


Strategies to Develop Creative Thinking

  1. Creative Thinking Question Stems: I often say that good teachers help students find the right answers; great teachers help students find the right questions. Use these open-ended question stems to encourage your child to think creatively. Then challenge your child to ask you questions that encourage creative thinking as well.
    • What would happen if…
    • What would it be like to…
    • What did you think when…
    • What can we make with…
  2. Press On: Show your child that there are always more ways to look at a given topic or idea. Try this game as a family. Ask the members of your family to name things that are red. Listen as they list “apple” and “firetruck” and other answers that come easily. When they feel like they’ve run out of answers, let the conversation pause for a moment, and then press them to think more broadly. Give them the hint…what about emotions? Then they may surprise you by picking up the pace of the conversation again with “anger,” “embarrassment,” etc. If your child makes an inaccurate or unfamiliar connection, ask them to explain. By sharing his reasoning, he is sharing his creative thinking.
  3. Analogy a Day: Have fun asking your child to compare random things and enjoy the creative thinking she shares. You can start simple with things like, “How is an apple like an orange?” But don’t be afraid to compare seemingly incompatible things. For example, ask, “How is an orange like our house?” You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the connections even very young children can make!


Strategies to Develop Critical Thinking

  1. Critical Thinking Stems: If you want your children to think critically, you have to ask them critical questions that are worthy of think time. Use these question stems to encourage your child to think more deeply about a topic.
    • Why did…
    • How do you know that…
    • Can you be sure that…
    • What is your evidence that…
  2. Show your Thinking: When your child tells you an answer, ask him to show you his “thinking.” This will force him to draw or write the thinking behind his answer, which solidifies the concept further and values the thinking process over the actual result.
  3. Five Whys: Often times toddlers can get carried away with the question, “Why,” so use this strategy to turn the tables. When your child asserts something, ask her “Why” five times. Each time she has to dig a little deeper into her reasoning. After doing this a few times, she’ll give more thought-out answers from the very beginning.


Strategies that Develop BOTH Creative AND Critical Thinking

  1. Another Way: Whenever your child shows you something they have learned, ask them to show you that learning another way. For example, if they show you the number “5,” say, “Show it to me another way.” They may show it to you in a different color, or they may bring you 5 pennies, or they may draw 5 dots. They are thinking critically because they are deepening their understanding of the number 5. But they are also thinking creatively by representing it in a different way.
  2. Personification: Compare different objects using personification. If you are working with shapes, say, “What would a square say to a circle?” You might even write a letter from square to circle. Would it be a love letter? A break-up letter? Your child will have to think about the qualities of each shape (critical thinking) and then imagine how those qualities would manifest as human emotions and actions (creative thinking).
  3. Connection Challenge: We strengthen understanding when we are able to make connections to other things we know. So always encourage your child to connect the current topic of conversation to something else you have talked about. For example, when you read a story together, ask her how the current story relates to another story you have read together. Even if there’s no obvious connection, challenge your child to come up with one. Sometimes their answers will be insightful (The Very Hungry Caterpillar is like Where the Wild Things Are because they both show that things change over time.) Other times their answers will be outlandish (The Very Hungry Caterpillar is like Where the Wild Things Are because I bet Max’s mom gave him food that gave him a stomach ache like the caterpillar). In either case, ask your child to explain her answer. As she does, she is converging her thoughts about each story (critical thinking) while also searching for a not-always-obvious connection (creative thinking).


Make it a habit to encourage and celebrate creative and critical thinking in all your interactions. It won’t mean they’ll never have a lapse in judgement, but it will lay a strong foundation for deep understanding of concepts and innovative problem-solving!

Terra Tarango
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Terra Tarango is a mom as well as an accomplished executive in the education industry with more than 15 years of experience in educational publishing and services. She currently serves as the Chief Education Officer at the Van Andel Education Institute (VAEI). She is an expert in instructional climate and culture and has devoted her career to helping teachers create learning experiences where curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking thrive.

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