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• by Rebecca Long Pyper •

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Thinking at the next level

How to promote critical thinking in your kids

Whether your child is a mini genius or currently fails to read at grade level, instilling higher-level thinking skills in youth is crucial and can set them up to make better choices throughout their lives.


“On a basic level, how do we as human beings make choices? We have to have critical-thinking skills to make any choice in our life. If you want free agency for everyone, this is essential,” said Blackfoot School District 55 gifted-and-talented facilitator Vicki Chase.


Parents don’t have to be brainiacs to teach their kids how to think at a higher level. Chase outlines a handful of practical ways moms and dads can encourage their kids to start thinking in more complex ways:


Encourage them to solve problems. “As parents one of the things we don’t allow our kids to do enough is to struggle,” Chase said. “When we do it for them, we are not allowing them to develop the problem-solving skills and strategy skills.”


That can be as simple as responding to their questions with more questions. When your child is working on homework and says, “I don’t know the answer,” respond by asking, “What can we do to figure it out?” Or if your kids ask, “Did I do this problem right?” don’t default to a quick yes or no; instead, ask why they think it’s wrong (or right) and how they came up with their answer. This approach requires kids to identify that criteria are met.


Another place to solve problems is at the grocery store. When shopping with kids, teach them about price per unit, then ask them to help choose the products that make it into the cart. This will require them to compare and contrast, plus do math. The activity promotes lifelong consumerism skills — and keeps them busy in the store so they aren’t driving you mad, Chase said.


One more place to break things down is when children report that they’ve completed a task at home. If your daughter says she’s cleaned her room, ask her what she did and what makes her think the job is finished. Encourage her to identify all the steps she took — making her bed, putting clean clothes away and dumping dirty things in the hamper, for instance. It’s also a good way for her to identify what parts of the room have not yet been cleaned up.


Think out loud. Next time you’ve got a problem to solve, do it out loud. Don’t have dinner planned? Muse aloud about what you’ll make. Ask kids for their suggestions, then discuss limitation imposed by the current state of your pantry. “We as adults know the strategies that we use (to solve problems), but kids don’t know that,” Chase said.


Inspire creativity. Chase keeps a bunch of “doodahs” in her classroom, and when kids are working on creative assignments, they construct things from the random items. “When they have to create things, they will go into that room, and things will jump out at them, and they’ll say, ‘I can use this and I can use that,’” she said. “I’ve seen some really amazing things kids have made out of boxes and markers and tape. If kids don’t have the toy they want, what can (they) create?”


As a girl Chase and her siblings created an entire Hot Wheels town on a sheet of paneling — “that was hours and hours of fun, and we created it ourselves,” she said. And surely this kind of creativity requires more brain power than watching TV or playing videogames. Encourage kids to make a store or make a car by having boxes and miscellany on hand for creative play.


Ask about alternatives. Weighing options is another way to tap higher brainpower. When there’s a task to accomplish, ask your kids their opinions. If you’ve got a Saturday’s worth of housecleaning to do, ask them what different ways the family can finish the work — do it all in the morning? Divvy up the tasks?  Or if you’ve got errands to run, ask them about different routes and how they would get to the destination. In addition to geographic awareness, “it’s allowing them opportunities to make choices, so they’re part of that decision-making process,” Chase said.


Push “why” more often. When your kid says he hates lasagna, ask for more details — what ingredients are gross? Is texture the issue? Does it take too long to make? This requires kids to recognize evidence, and that’s a big part of the educational core standards adopted in Idaho and used in the classroom, Chase said. Help children learn the difference between facts and opinions, the concrete and the abstract. “Talk to the kids and ask them what their views and feelings are — not just ‘I hate lasagna,’ but why,” Chase said.


Get to know your kids a little better. Howard Gardner identified multiple ways of being smart, from visual to logical to kinesthetic and more, and figuring out how your children are intellectually talented can boost their self-esteem. Diagnostics are available free online; they’re a fun way to celebrate what makes your kid special and intellectually strong.


Let kids evaluate their work. When a task is complete, ask how they think they did, and again dig for specifics. Evaluation is one of the highest levels of thinking, and if your children can learn to look at their work objectively, it’ll help them be more thorough in their responsibilities now and as future adults.

Story and background photo by Rebecca Long Pyper.