Much of early-childhood education takes place right at home, months or years before students begin preschool or kindergarten. Children learn to speak and to walk, to color and to cut with scissors. Though we think of it less often than obvious skills like cooperating with one’s peers or reading short picture books independently, students also learn to think critically from the individuals around them.
Though critical thinking is emphasized in nearly every year of school — from pre-kindergarten to college or graduate school — it is a skill that parents can begin to introduce to their children from a young age. It is even less tricky than a term like “critical thinking” might imply. Here are three ways you can foster critical thinking skills in your student:
1. Encourage her to question the world around her
“Why?” To the parents of small children, this question may seem omnipresent and — at times — frankly annoying. Questioning the world around her is your student’s first foray, or one of her first forays, into critical thinking. While it may be frustrating to hear a small voice ask, “Why?” when you tell your child to put her shoes on or to dress in a certain article of clothing, you can transform this moment into one that enriches this important skill. You might ask, for instance, “Why do we wear shoes?” or “What do shoes protect your feet from?” Questions that begin with how, what or why are often best for such discussions, as they encourage answers outside of “Yes,” or “No.”
2. Resist the urge to solve problems for her
We all wish to protect those individuals who are most important to us, especially when they are distressed. However, allowing your student to solve her own problems — assuming she is not in any danger — can exercise her critical thinking muscles. Take this scenario: you and your family are at the beach, and your child would like to build a sandcastle. Unfortunately, you forgot your shovel and bucket at home. While you could suggest that your student use a drinking cup or her hands instead, challenging her to solve the problem for herself can be an even better response. She may even uncover a solution that you had not thought of, like borrowing a bucket from the family beside you.
3. Provide opportunities for creativity and free play
As might be obvious by now, critical thinking is closely linked to creativity and problem solving. Free play, also known as unstructured play, is both easy to accommodate and a rich source of these attributes. With free play, your child selects what she would like to play with and what she would like to do. If she enjoys LEGOs, she might wish to build a hospital, a school or a home, all of which will involve critically considering what these items look like in reality. Creative outlets (such as dancing, making music and painting) can also introduce your student to new ways of thinking, and these new ways of thinking can, in turn, deepen her critical capacities.
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