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By Dr. Pam Schiller
Critical thinking is defined as analyzing and evaluating information or evidence in order to guide decision making. It is literally thinking about thinking. The term critical thinking is often co-mingled with creative thinking, higher order thinking, and even, problem solving. It is a function of all of these or better put—all of these types of thinking are a part of critical thinking. The brain wires for thinking skills soon after birth. The infant figures out soon that smiling is a draw for an adult to interact and that crying brings assistance. The toddler determines that standing is easier when there is a chair or table to use as a “helper.”
The brain wires with experience so it is crucial that we allow children to have many experiences that will exercise their critical thinking skills. We want to expose infants and toddler to extensive “cause and effect” activities so that they learn about relationships that will later guide their choice of options when making a decision. Preschoolers will use what they have learned about cause-and-effect and they forge new thinking about how to solve more complex problem.
Activities to Encourage Critical Thinking
Infants and Toddlers
1. Provide cause-and-effect toys, experiences, and activities for infants. Even before a baby can understand your words, describe the cause-and-effect relationships that these toys, experiences, and activities have. Continue calling attention to these relationships as the children expand what they understand.
2. Ask toddlers questions that require them to think of new ways to do things. How can we make the sound of the rattle louder? How can we make it softer? How can we fill the bucket with blocks without touching them?
Preschool and School-Age Children
1. Critical thinking requires knowing how to evaluate, synthesize, and analyze a situation, and how to apply what you know to a situation. Ask the children questions that encourage them to use these thinking skills. For example, the following are some questions you might ask after reading “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.”
2. Ask questions. “What if” questions stimulate creative thinking and judgment questions exercise analysis and evaluation.
3. Mix one cup beans, one cup salt, and one cup rice together in a bowl. Provide the children with a strainer and a colander and tell them to separate the items in the bowl into three separate bowls—one with beans, one with salt, and one with rice. After the children are successful, ask them if they can think of another way to accomplish the task.
4. Place two long strips of masking tape on the floor, five feet apart. Ask the children how they would move a Ping Pong ball from one line to the other without touching it. (Some possibilities include blowing the ball through a straw, fanning it with a magazine or book, blowing on it directly, or blowing it through a paper towel tube.)
5. Cut three to four sets of cat footprints and bird tracks from black construction paper. Tape the footprints on the floor with the bird prints perpendicular to the cat prints. The two sets of prints should meet at a right angle with only the cat prints continuing. Encourage the children to share their ideas of what happened. Children will guess things like the bird flew away, the cat ate the bird, and the bird hopped on the cat’s back. Ask the children if there is any way they can know for sure what happened.
6. Give the children two coffee cans and several smaller items to place inside the cans (a roll of tape, a small book, a crayon, a block). Have the children place one item in each can and then roll the cans. Ask the children to explore and notice how the items inside the cans affect the way the cans roll.
7. Science experiments and projects are filled with opportunities for critical thinking. Visit websites that provide simple science experiments and projects.
Dr. Schiller is a respected curriculum specialist and freelance author and speaker. Pam has served as head of the Early Childhood Department at the University of Houston. She is the author of six curriculums, 18 children’s books, more than 30 teacher and parent resource books, and a number of other creative projects such as activity books, DVDs and CDs.