How do we develop the thinking skills of our young learners?

The New Zealand Curriculum Key Competencies has ‘Thinking’ as one of the five main focus areas. It states: 

Thinking is about using creative, critical, and metacognitive processes to make sense of information, experiences, and ideas. These processes can be applied to purposes such as developing understanding, making decisions, shaping actions, or constructing knowledge. Intellectual curiosity is at the heart of this competency.

Students who are competent thinkers and problem-solvers actively seek, use, and create knowledge. They reflect on their own learning, draw on personal knowledge and intuitions, ask questions, and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions. NZC – Key Competencies – Thinking.

The early childhood years are a critical period for brain development. Providing opportunities for developing  thinking skills during this time helps shape neural connections, fostering a strong cognitive foundation for future learning.  Thinking skills encompass cognitive abilities such as memory, attention, problem-solving, and reasoning. ‘Teaching’ these skills at a young age supports the enhancement of these cognitive abilities, providing children with tools to navigate the world around them.

I think we would all agree how important it is for our children to develop sound thinking skills, especially in an age where we are surrounded by ‘fake news’ and AI at our finger-tips.  With the recent poor International education rankings, I fear the focus will once again be on the three r’s of reading, ‘riting’ and ‘rithmetic’ and a focus on the KCs will go out the window. Some schools are already saying they now have no time for learning through play. This is a travesty as play is HOW children learn.

Learning through play offers a holistic approach to the development of thinking skills in young children. It  is a powerful and natural way for young children to develop a wide range of thinking skills.  It engages multiple facets of their cognitive, social, and emotional development, providing a foundation for future learning and problem-solving abilities. Play provides a context for children to explore, experiment, and make sense of the world around them. 

Play often involves challenges and obstacles, whether it’s building a tower of blocks, solving a puzzle, or navigating a pretend play scenario. These activities require children to think critically and develop problem-solving skills as they figure out how to achieve their goals.

Pretend play and imaginative activities encourage children to think creatively. Through role-playing and creating imaginary scenarios, children engage their minds in abstract thinking, storytelling, and inventing new ideas.

Play is inherently social, and children learn valuable social thinking skills through interactions with their peers. Negotiating roles, sharing, taking turns, and resolving conflicts during play contribute to the development of social and emotional intelligence.

Play provides opportunities for language development as children communicate with each other, negotiate roles, and express their ideas. Developing a rich vocabulary and the ability to articulate thoughts are important components of thinking skills.

Many play activities involve concepts of quantity, size, shape, and spatial relationships. Sorting objects, counting, and arranging items during play contribute to the development of early mathematical thinking.

Play often involves a sense of curiosity and exploration. Children naturally engage in activities that allow them to observe, experiment, and draw conclusions—essential components of scientific thinking.

Play activities, such as memory games, role-playing, and storytelling, engage cognitive functions and memory. These activities contribute to the development of memory skills, attention, and overall cognitive abilities.

Play often involves making choices and decisions. Whether it’s selecting a game to play, deciding on a role in a pretend scenario, or choosing how to build with blocks, children practice decision-making skills during play.

There are also many alternatives to develop thinking skills in our young learners. Posing open-ended questions that encourage children to think and express their ideas can be used throughout the day. Questions like “What do you think will happen next?” or “Why do you think that happened?” stimulate critical thinking.

Stories are great for engaging children in discussions afterward. Encourage them to share their thoughts about the characters, plot, and possible alternate endings. This helps develop their ability to analyze and interpret information.

Encourage children to observe their surroundings and reflect on their experiences. Ask questions like “What did you notice?” or “How did that make you feel?” This helps develop metacognitive processes and self-awareness.

Introduce age-appropriate puzzles, games, and challenges that require children to think logically and find solutions. This can include simple math games, pattern recognition, or sorting activities.

Promote collaborative learning experiences where children work together to achieve a common goal. This helps them develop communication skills, learn from each other, and see different perspectives.

Create a culture where asking questions is welcomed. Foster an environment where children feel comfortable asking “why” and exploring their curiosity. This helps them develop a natural inclination to seek and create knowledge.

Incorporate visual aids, such as pictures, diagrams, or charts, to support understanding and stimulate discussion. Visuals can enhance comprehension and encourage children to think critically about the information presented.

Model thinking processes by verbalizing your own thoughts and problem-solving strategies. This helps children see how thinking is a dynamic process and provides them with a model for their own thinking.

It is important to remember that whilst developing thinking skills in our young children to  make learning enjoyable and engaging. The goal is to create a positive and supportive environment that nurtures the development of thinking skills in young learners.