Effective Practice Guides

Reasoning and Problem-Solving: Do


Try the following practices with infants and toddlers and preschool-aged children. Find out how home visitors can put these practices to work with families.

Infants and Toddlers1,2

  • Support young infants as they learn to control their body movements and become mobile.
    • For example, scaffold an infant’s ability to roll by lying close to him on the floor and encouraging him with words and physical support, if needed to roll toward you.
  • Help infants and toddlers predict, explain, and reason about the people and the world around them (e.g., ask a child what he thinks a caregiver is going to do as she walks across the play area into the kitchen).
  • Prompt toddlers through problem solving as needed (e.g., “Clara, I see that you are struggling with that shape sorter. I wonder what else you could try to make that oval fit. What if you try turning the piece around?”).
  • Comment on toddlers’ successful problem-solving strategies (e.g., “Manuel, I noticed that you walked around Eva and Marco’s floor puzzle to get to the book shelf. Good thinking.”).
  • Encourage toddlers to persist in their attempts to solve simple problems (e.g., “Jacob, I see that you are working to make those shapes fit into the sorter. You’re trying them in different positions. Turning the shapes around is a good idea. Keep trying. You’ve almost got it!”).
  • Point out problems and how they get solved in stories and real life (e.g., When reading books, pose questions about the characters such as, "How do you think the bunny will get to that yummy carrot?"). When real-life problems come up, describe the problems and suggest solutions for very young or non-verbal children. Invite verbal children to suggest solutions.
  • Talk through your own discovery of a solution so that children become aware of how to think through problems and solutions.
    • For example, if you have more children than crackers for snack time, you might say, "Oh no, we have eight children and only seven crackers left. That's not enough crackers! What can we do? Maybe instead of crackers for snack today, we can have sliced cucumbers."


  • Allow children to solve everyday problems. Ask open-ended questions that will prompt them to try different strategies (e.g., what to do at snack time when there are not enough cups at one table and not enough snacks at another table, how to carry a heavy object together, or what happens when you mix two colors).3
  • Plan indoor and outdoor activities that help children use the scientific method to observe, make predictions, and test those predictions, such as growing plants.4 Scaffold children’s abilities to make predictions. For example, explain what a prediction is (a guess about what is going to happen). Encourage children to first predict and then check to see if what they predicted happened. Prompt predictions by asking questions and letting children know predictions do not have to be right. Encourage children to make multiple or alternate predictions or compare children’s predictions. Record children’s predictions.5
  • Chart children’s descriptions of the process they followed (e.g., the question they investigated—do plants grow higher in the dark or in sunlight?; their predictions; how they planted and watered seeds; how they measured the plants) as well as the results (e.g., how tall the plants were each day, which plants were tallest at the end).Demonstrate different ways to chart results and encourage children to record their own results.
  • Help children analyze their results and draw conclusions. Ask questions to help children think about what happened and why they think it happened.
    • For example, if children predicted that plants would grow higher in the dark than in sunlight, encourage them to look at the results (plants grew higher in sunlight) and offer ideas for what made the difference, given that all the plants received the same amount of watering.
  • Promote the use of scientific tools such as magnifiers and measuring instruments, to extend children’s investigations. Make sure tools are available and in good working order, and that children know what they are used for and how to use them.7

Home Visitors

Home visitors can support parents in identifying, adapting, and trying the practices listed above home visits and group socializations. Here are more ideas.

  • Talk to parents about commenting on their child’s persistence and effort (e.g., “You kept taking the dolls out of the box and putting them back in until you figured out how to make them all fit in the box!”) rather than offering generic praise (e.g., “Good job!”) or praising her for a specific characteristic (e.g., “You’re so smart!”). Point out when parents use more specific language. Model these interactions, as needed.
  • Assure parents that young children get real satisfaction from solving problems by themselves if they can, and with “just enough” help if they can’t. You might say, “Let’s watch for a minute. She’s really working on it and doesn’t seem frustrated.” You might also suggest that parents ask their child, “What else might work?” and offer an idea, if the child needs it.8
  • Talk with parents about their cultural beliefs and practices related to nature and the way children demonstrate questioning and exploring behaviors.9 For example, some parents encourage their child to actively explore and ask questions. Other parents encourage their child to be silent observers and listen rather than question. This knowledge will help you co-plan experiences and activities that are culturally appropriate and respectful.
  • Talk with parents about using questions that promote investigation and inquiry and challenge their child to think through a problem and come up with a solution: “How do you think we can find out...? What would happen if...? I wonder why...?” Comment when you hear parents ask their child these kinds of questions and note how their child responds. Encourage parents to speak the language(s) they know best when having science-related conversations with their child.
  • Encourage parents to notice what their child wonders about and reassure them that their child is engaging in science when he or she asks questions about how the world works. Coach parents on ways to support their child’s curiosity, explorations, and discovery:10
    • Question: Join in when your child is curious.
      • Example: If the child wonders how to build a tall tower with empty boxes, the parent might ask, “How many boxes do you think you can stack?”
    • Observe: Ask your child to think about what she sees or remembers.
      • Example: The parent might ask, “How tall was the tower you built before?” The child might answer, “Up to here (pointing to waist)!”
    • Predict: Ask your child what she thinks will happen.
      • Example: The parent might wonder, “How many boxes do you think you can stack this time?” The child might answer, “A lot! Ten!”
    • Do: Try things. See what happens!
      • Example: The parent might say, “Ten? Okay, let’s count them together.” The child might say, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 … Oh no, it fell down!”
    • Discuss: Talk about what happened.
      • For example, the parent might say, “Wow, that was a tall tower. Six blocks, and it almost came up to your shoulder! Why do you think it fell down?” The child might answer, “It was shaky. It didn’t stand up straight.” The parent might respond, “I saw it shake. What could you do to make the boxes less shaky?”

1Allyson Dean, Sarah, LeMoine, and Maria Mayoral, ZERO TO THREE Critical Competencies for Infant-Toddler Educators (Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE, 2016), 53–54, C-4.

2Early Head Start National Resource Center (EHS NRC), News You Can Use: Approaches Toward Learning—Foundations of School Readiness Part 3 (Washington, DC: HHS, ACF, OHS, 2012), https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/school-readiness/article/news-you-can-use-approaches-toward-learning-part-3-foundations-school.

3National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning (NCQTL), When Children Ask “Why”? STEAM Sharpens Their Inquiry Skills (Washington, DC: HHS, ACF, OHS, NCQTL, Oct. 14, 2014), Teacher Time, https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/video/when-children-ask-why-steam-sharpens-their-inquiry-skills and https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/video/transcripts/teacher-time-10-14.pdf (transcript).

4National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning (NCQTL), “Tips for Teachers: Fostering Children’s Thinking Skills” (Washington, DC: HHS, ACF, OHS, NCQTL, 2012), https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/teaching/docs/foster_TeacherTips.pdf.

5California Department of Education, California Preschool Curriculum Framework Volume 3 (Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education, 2013), 163–164, Science/Scientific Inquiry, http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/re/documents/preschoolframeworkvol3.pdf [PDF, 7.5MB].

6California Department of Education, California Preschool Curriculum Framework Volume 1 (Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education, 2010), 278, Measurement, http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/re/documents/psframeworkkvol1.pdf [PDF, 8.8MB].

7California Department of Education, California Preschool Curriculum Framework Volume 3 (Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education, 2013), 159, Science/Scientific Inquiry, http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/re/documents/preschoolframeworkvol3.pdf [PDF, 7.5MB].

8Early Head Start National Resource Center (EHS NRC), OpenDoors Home Visitor’s Handbook (Washington, DC: HHS, ACF, OHS, EHS NRC, 2014), Chapter 10.1, Approaches toward Learning, How To.

9California Department of Education, California Preschool Curriculum Framework Volume 3 (Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education, 2013), 174–175, Science/Scientific Inquiry, http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/re/documents/preschoolframeworkvol3.pdf [PDF, 7.5MB].

10National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning (NCQTL), “Tips for Families-Using the Scientific Method: Go Exploring!” (Washington, DC: HHS, ACF, OHS, NCQTL, 2013), https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/no-search/iss/engaging-interactions-2/scientific-method-family-tips.pdf.


Topic:School Readiness

Resource Type: Article

Last Updated: June 5, 2018