Undoubtedly, there are many other approaches to teaching problem solving skills. However, below I will be sharing ten activities that I have used to apply my five-step process to problem solving. Similar to my last three blogs, ‘Taking Turns and Sharing’, ‘Following the Rules’, and ‘Cooperation’, I will be using the structure of a Warm Up, Main Activity and a Cool Down.
In the warm up I define the aim of the lesson, define the key terminology, and introduce the expected language. This can be done through a brainstorming activity, giving a verbal explanation or reading a social story. For example, you could use a script such as:
Today we are going to practice problem solving. Problem solving is a process we can use to identify solutions for a challenge or issue we are dealing with. There are five steps to problem solving: Goal, problem, brainstorm, trial, and review.
To finish off the warm up, I like to do a quick engagement activity such as singing a song or watching a short video clip about the topic. A few quick warm up ideas are riddles (e.g., You can see me in water, but I never get wet. What am I? Your reflection.), word puzzles (e.g., crossword, word search, fill in the missing word, crack the code, etc.,), or math puzzles (e.g., the 9 dot problem, count the number of triangles, etc.).
The main activity should focus on practicing the skill of problem solving. Below are five fun activities:
1. Line up challenge.
Students have to line up in a given order (height, age, alphabetical, etc.,), without talking to each other. Can complete this task for time or introduce a time limit.
Goal: To line up in given order
Problem: Not allowed to talk
Brainstorm strategies: e.g., get a partner to measure height if uncertain, use fingers to indicate age, use pointing and gesture, mouth the answer, etc.
2. Circle Challenge.
Students stand in a circle and are given a ball or object to pass around the circle, but are not allowed to use their hands. If anyone uses their hands, the ball goes back to the starting person. Can complete this task for time or introduce a time limit.
Goal: To pass the ball around the circle
Problem: Unable to use hands to pass the ball
Brainstorm strategies: e.g., pass the ball using wrists, forearms, elbows, chins, knees, or feet.
3. Hoop Challenge.
One hoop is placed on the ground and students are told everyone needs to be in the hoop. Students can also be told everyone needs to be on the hoop.
Goal: For everyone to be in the hoop
Problem: The hoop is too small for everyone to fit inside the hoop
Brainstorm solutions: e.g., only put one body part in the hoop (e.g., hand, foot, finger) and this will satisfy the criteria.
4. Paper chain.
Individually or in teams, students are given a piece of paper, scissors, and sticky tape or stapler. Only using those resources, students must create the longest possible paper chain.
Goal: To create the longest paper chain
Problem: Only have limited resources – one piece of paper, scissors and tape/stapler
Brainstorm strategies: e.g., cut thin vs thick strips, cut long vs short strips, use tape vs a stapler
Students stand in a circle and create a ‘knot’ by holding each other’s hands (note: cannot hold your own hand or the same person’s hand twice). Without letting go of hands, students must ‘undo’ the knot.
Goal: To undo the knot
Problem: Not able to hold let go of hands
Brainstorm strategies: e.g., go slowly, undo the knots in sections, have a designated person to give instructions, lift arms for people to go underneath, bend down to allow people to step over, etc.
6. Cup Tower Challenge.
In teams, students are given 6 plastic cups (stacked), string, scissors, and a rubber band. As a team, students must build a tower three cups high (3 on the base, 2 in the middle, one on the top), using only the rubber band and string.
Goal: To build a tower three cups high
Problem: Not allowed to use hands, can only use string and a rubber band
Brainstorm strategies: Cut one length of string per person and tie each length to the rubber band. Each team member can now increase or decrease the tension on the rubber band and use it as a ‘hand’ to pick up and put down the cups.
7. Position Swap.
A straight line in placed on the ground (chalk, tape, ribbon or similar). Students must stand on the line facing a partner and swap positions, without stepping off the line.
Goal: To swap positions with partner
Problem: Have to stay on the line
Brainstorm strategies: one person bend down for the other person to step over, hold hands to counterbalance as you simultaneously sidestep each other
8. All aboard.
Students are given a blanket and told they must all stand on the blanket without touching the ground. If students are able to do that, the blanket is folded in half and the process repeated. Keep going until the blanket is too small for everyone to stand on it.
Goal: For everyone to fit on the smallest possible sized blanket
Problem: No one is allowed to touch the ground
Brainstorm strategies: e.g., counterbalance with peers, stand on tip toes, stand on one foot, or stand on peers’ feet, etc.
Students must get from one platform to the other (one side of the room to the other) without touching the ‘quicksand’. In order to achieve this, students are given X pieces of paper (depending on the distance) to create stepping stones. Students can only cross to the other platform using the stepping stones and someone must be in contact with each stepping stone at all times, otherwise it will ‘sink’ into the quicksand.
Goal: To get from one platform to the other without sinking in the quicksand.
Problem: Can only cross to the other side using the stepping stones and someone must be in contact with each stepping stone at all times.
Brainstorm strategies: The leader puts down the first stepping stone (piece of paper down). The leader must keep a hand or a finger on the stepping stone as they step onto it. The leader must repeat this process until they reach the other platform. Each person must also ensure that the person behind them has one foot on the stepping stone they are currently standing on, before they step to the next one.
A mine field is created by placing a range of materials (e.g., bean bag, ribbons, ropes, books, balloons, paper, jumpers, shoes, etc.,) in the playing space. Students are placed in two teams. One person from each team is the sergeant and one person is the cadet. The cadet is blindfolded and must listen to the sergeant’s instructions to get through the minefield without any explosions (touching any mines). If a mine explodes, that cadet must sit out. The team that gets the most number of cadets through the minefield wins.
Goal: For the sergeant to get all the cadets through the minefield (or the most number).
Problem: The cadets are blindfolded and must get through the minefield by following the sergeant’s instructions.
Brainstorm strategies: e.g., designated one sergeant or share sergeant’s after each cadet attempts the minefield, attempt to take longer or shorter steps, use modifying language such as “big/large/small/tiny step, use commands such as ‘stop’ or ‘pause’ to prevent a cadet from stepping on a mine, sergeant moves along the sideline to properly see the land mines, etc.
The cool down provides an opportunity for reflection and consolidation. Identify the goal of the session (problem solving) and ask them to reflect on the experience; was it difficult or easy, were some parts of the process easier, how could they apply this process to another situation, etc. If possible, taking pictures or video throughout the lesson supports reflection during the cool down. This can also be used for the class or school newsletter or as a prompt for a writing lesson.
Remember, problem solving is an essential skill that we constantly use. It is important that we support students to understand this process it and apply it to a range of situations in a range of environments. By supporting problem solving skills, we support learning!
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