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Preschoolers Can Learn To Think Critically — Find Out How!

As parents interested in education, you may have been hearing a lot about critical thinking as an essential “21st century skill.” Some of you could even be wondering: is it possible to develop my children’s thinking skills from a young age?

According to some experts, the answer is a resounding yes. But first, one must understand what “critical thinking” entails.

“To put it simply, critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe in a situation,” says parent and educator Shirley Tan, who runs classes at her enrichment centre, From Tiny Acorns, to help preschoolers and primary schoolers to think better. “In order to do this, we need to have the ability to reflect on the information we have, realise what information we need, and ask the right questions to help us make logical connections between ideas.”

Scholastic defines critical thinking as “the ability to mentally break down a problem or an idea into parts and analyse them.” For instance, sorting, classifying, and comparing similarities and differences are all part of the critical thinking process.

According to developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell, critical thinking also comprises the following skills:

“It is the ability to evaluate information to determine whether it is right or wrong… [One also needs] to be open-minded and consider alternative ways of looking at solutions.”

“To be good at thinking, children must believe that thinking is fun and want to be good at it,” she advises. “Good thinkers practise thinking just like they practise basketball or soccer.”

Five Ways To Raise Little Thinkers


Help kids to be curious about the world. Parents take note: it’s not about asking your child a string of questions, but asking good questions that will stimulate your child’s thinking.

Here’s an example from educator Shirley Tan: “Let’s say a child sees a polar bear at the zoo, and you want to ask him or her some questions to spark curiosity. Less effective questions are close-ended questions where your child draws upon existing knowledge, such as ‘What is this?’ and ‘Where does it live?’”

According to Tan, good questions encourage a child to hypothesise and explore possibilities based on available information, and examples of such questions would be “Why does this animal have white fur?” or “When we look at this animal’s body, what clues can we find that may tell us more about its diet, habitat, and lifestyle?”

Teach kids to ask better questions. In Singapore, parents have the tendency to focus on obtaining the “right” answer, when the true path to learning lies in question asking. Here’s something that you can do with your child on a regular basis: think of a topic that you would like your child to investigate, and ask your child to make a list of questions about it.  

However, bear in mind that not all questions are created equal. From a young age, kids can be taught that there are simple questions that require only “yes” or “no” answers, as well as more powerful questions that stimulate reflection and thinking — these are usually questions that begin with “Why” and “What if.”

Another way to help younger children differentiate between question types is to talk about “heart questions” versus “research questions.” Some questions can be answered by using what you know in your heart and mind, such as “What makes a friend a good friend?” Other questions can be answered by research, which includes looking up the answer online or in books, or simply by making an observation. (Read about asking better questions here.)

Teach problem-solving skills. Given our culture of depending on assessment books for all kinds of academic learning, some parents may think they can just pick up an assessment book or print some worksheets to teach critical thinking skills,” says Tan. “Assessment books tend to give a model answer for every question. Hence, we are indirectly training young children to expect and believe that for every scenario, problem, and situation, there is a model answer. This limits their growth in critical thinking. These children may also find it hard to deal with unfamiliar situations or problems.”

Instead of subjecting young children to assessment book drilling, parents can spend time equipping them with problem-solving skills. One way is to demonstrate how you solve daily life problems by thinking out loud. For instance, you might say: “Oh no, Daddy took my set of keys with him to work by mistake. What do you think we should do? Should we leave the door unlocked when we go out? Should we wait at home till Daddy comes home? Is there anyone else in this family who has a set of keys that we can use?”

If you enjoy playing board or card games with your children, you can help them to work out their next moves by verbalising each available option and its consequences, and asking them which would be the most strategic move to make.

Occasionally, your kids will be upset by a problem or situation. Teach them strategies to soothe themselves (e.g. by taking deep breaths) and when they’re ready, get them to think about why they feel angry or upset. Next, get them to come up with possible solutions to remedy the situation, and for every solution, ask “What would happen if you did this?” When they decide on a solution, ask “Did this solve the problem?” and if not, “What would you like to try next?”

Teach kids to discern between “real” and “make believe.” Before kids can evaluate whether information is credible, they have to first distinguish between imagination and reality. Here’s an activity to try: together with your child, read aloud a fiction and a non-fiction book on the same subject, such as frogs. After reading the books, ask your child questions such as “Can frogs talk?” or “Can frogs hop?” and encourage your child to respond with “Yes, that’s real!” or “No, that’s make-believe!” Do remember to ask them how they arrived at their conclusions too.

Kids may also be curious about what they see on TV or on the Internet. Likewise, this is a good chance to talk about what’s real versus what’s fictional. For instance, you might say that “Yes, there is really a city called New York, in a country called America or the US, but we’re watching a make-believe story set in this city.” You can also alert children to the existence of advertisements and commercials, and explain that their purpose is usually to entice viewers to purchase products or services.

Encourage kids to clarify doubts. Above all, keep having conversations with your kids. Give them your full attention, and space to express themselves. More important, let them know that it is perfectly normal to be unsure of something — or not know it at all — and to ask a question to seek clarification.

“What does this mean?” or “Could you give an example of this?” are useful questions that your kids can and should ask often. Don’t forget to lead by example, and show kids how you too are willing to ask questions in daily life, in order to understand something or someone just a little better.

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