What is one of the most important skills all students must learn? Is it math or coding? Reading? Writing? While all these skills are indeed vital to success, the one skill that underlines all disciplines is problem solving. All lines of work need great problem solvers to find tomorrow’s solutions, and students of any age can be honing their problem-solving skills. Check out some of these fun problem-solving activities for kids and teens below!
Problem-solving activities for elementary school kids (ages 5-10)
From traditional paper-and-pencil activities to online tools, below are some great activities for kids ages 5-10.
1. Coding Courses for Kids
It’s never too early to start learning the foundational concepts of computer programming! There are a number of courses appropriate for young students to start building their problem solving skills, including the award-winning Scratch Ninja course. For the uninitiated, Scratch is a user-friendly colorful drag-and-drop coding tool developed by MIT for making awesome games and animations while learning important logic. Or, for students who are visual learners, try a Minecraft Redstone Engineering course to find out how to build awesome inventions! There are many free coding classes to start with, to find your child's interests.
2. Tower Building
Turns out that kindergartners might be better engineers than grownups (at least according to this experiment)! The challenge was as follows: given 20 pieces of spaghetti, a yard of tape, and a yard of string, build the tallest possible tower that can support 1 marshmallow on top. After various groups of people tried it from Stanford and other universities, kindergartners ended up beating them for creating the tallest tower. Challenge your student to see how tall they can make their tower too!
Whether taken out of the newspaper or off of the web, crosswords are a useful logic puzzle for kids to work on. Crosswords encourage students to use context clues, as well as their reasoning skills by eliminating possible options as they progress. Plus, it’s easy to vary the difficulty of the puzzles, as well as find fun, themed crosswords for different holidays! There's even a Thanksgiving crossword for your student to try.
4. Jigsaw Puzzles
There’s nothing like a good, ole’ fashioned puzzle to challenge the mind. Each person takes a different approach to puzzle solving, whether they organize their pieces first, find all the corners, or do something totally different. Exploring different strategies for solving puzzles is an effective introduction to independently creating strategies for problem solving. This is a solid choice for students who are visual learners.
An age-old classic, LEGOs are a fantastic way to combine creative skills with problem solving. Students need to follow sequential steps and visualize to create their LEGO designs. It’s even better when students go beyond the kit instructions to create their own LEGO build, as students will have to learn to utilize limited resources while coming up with a structured plan for designing their idea. LEGO Mindstorms is a popular starting point.
Problem-solving activities for middle school tweens (ages 11-13)
Middle schoolers (ages 11-13) will want to be challenged more with their activities, and these are some effective activities for encouraging growth.
6. Middle School Coding Courses
By the time they reach middle school, students will be ready to take on more advanced coding concepts, regardless of their prior coding experience. For those who have no prior coding experience, the Accelerated Scratch course is an excellent option, as it will introduce students to basic coding concepts while allowing them to make their games and animations. Students with some prior coding experience may want to try the Minecraft Code to Mod course, builds upon basic coding concepts like loops, conditionals, and more while building students' creativity and critical thinking.
7. Birthday Ordering
An activity commonly done at summer camps, the silent birthday lineup is an excellent problem-solving activity for groups. The goal is for students to line up in chronological order based on their birthdays, without talking at all. Working in total science requires students to think outside the box to accomplish their goal, and to prioritize teamwork. Try timing the students to see how quickly they can get it done, then let them reflect on the activity afterwards to see what strategies worked and what didn’t.
8. Event Planning
Have students plan their own event, like a fundraiser, a social, or a competition for their coding club. This will require students to collaborate by delegating tasks, coordinating supplies, budgeting, and more. Even planning something as simple as a pizza party still requires some logistical planning, and students will benefit from struggling through the process. Plus, they can get to enjoy the results of their work when the event finally arrives!
Arduino circuit boards are an excellent choice for children interested in engineering. Because Arduino is widely-popular, there are countless tutorials demonstrating its capabilities, such as creating a controller, custom RGB lighting, robotics, or more. Once students learn the basics, they can use Arduino boards to come up with creative solutions to their own problems. This is an excellent idea for highly-motivated kids who like to work by themselves.
Sudoku is an excellent number puzzle and a great problem-solving exercise. It requires students to evaluate multiple possible options as they try to fill in the puzzles, so students need to be able to create an organized approach to be successful. There are various difficulty levels for sudoku, so students can start easy, then advance as they become proficient at solving the puzzles.
Problem-solving activities for high school teens (ages 14+)
High school (14+) is a good time to incorporate group work into the activities, as students will need to learn to work collaboratively for their future in college and beyond.
11. Coding for Teens
Once reaching high school age, students are ready to tackle the complexities of text-based coding. This is where students can focus on their interests, whether it be web design, AI, app design, and more. Create & Learn’s Python for AI course is a good option, as Python is one of the most widely-used programming languages in the world. Students interested in game design might try the Roblox Studio course, which teaches students how to program their own Roblox games (or try the Beginner Roblox Game Coding course if they have limited previous coding experience.)
12. Robotics Club
Many different school programs offer robotics teams and robotics competitions, using tools such as VEX robotics. Robotics is a great way to combine computer science, mechanical engineering, and problem-solving skills. If there is no robotics team at your student’s school, consider trying a robotics kit such as the Makeblock mBot Ranger.
13. Egg Drop
This classic experiment is a lot of fun for students, and makes for a good competition as well. Students must build some sort of structure that will prevent an egg from breaking when dropped from a certain height (like the top of a staircase). It works best when students are restricted with the resources they can use; for instance, define a “budget” for parts that they can’t exceed, or give everyone the same materials to work with.
14. Debate Club
Whether deciding public policy or the best ice cream place in town, having the ability to engage in meaningful debate is critical. Debate forces students to self-analyze, listen, and think critically before making decisions. These skills benefit students’ futures by making them strong, independent thinkers. Check out these speech and debate competitions. And here are some tips for starting a debate club.
15. Science Fair
Science fairs pose an excellent opportunity for exploring the scientific method, both through creating personal projects and checking out other students’ presentations. By encouraging students to come up with their own projects, they must identify some question or problem and find a way to solve it. This can be the most challenging kind of problem-solving, as it requires the student to take initiative in finding their own ideas, but also can be the most rewarding. Try the Google Science Fair Competition.
Enjoy problem-solving activities for kids
And there you have it: problem-solving activities for students from elementary through high school age. Of course, there are many more ways to build critical-thinking abilities like problem-solving. For more ideas, check this list of awesome after-school enrichment activities!
Written by Create & Learn instructor Dominic Occhietti. Dominic is a graduate of Michigan State University, where he studied music performance and computer science. He thoroughly enjoys teaching, whether that be coding classes, French horn lessons, or even downhill skiing lessons!