Creative, lateral thinkers are just what we want our little ones to be. Talula Hughes of Alithia Learning shares some simple communication tools to ensure our words will help, rather than hinder, our kids’ natural talent for brilliant problem solving.

Raising tomorrow's creative thinkers: How to ask questions that encourage problem-solving

By Talula Hughes | Alithia Learning


It was raining today, and when I suggested cancelling our trip to the park, my four-year-old was full of alternative suggestions. “All the children could have umbrellas,” she exclaimed, “and then we wouldn’t get wet!” When I reminded her that the equipment would be wet and slippery, she came up with another idea. “We could go to the indoor playground in that town we visited!” she offered. (That town is two hours away.)

So how did I respond?


I love watching my daughter’s face light up as she brainstorms solutions to a problem… as she thinks laterally about how to make it (whatever it is) work. She is right now in the age group where the majority of kids naturally score at a genius level in this type of thinking. According to a longitudinal study by NASA, this ability is likely to decrease as she gets older… just two percent of the population manages to maintain this as an adult. 

Raising tomorrow's creative thinkers: How to ask questions that encourage problem-solving
Most children under five feel safe enough to throw suggestions around, to problem solve, regardless of how impossible their ideas may be or what obstacles might be in the way of fulfilling them.

And this is a life skill worth maintaining! Having more possible solutions to a problem means we have more options available when we ultimately take action to address a situation. And having more options means more freedom, both in our personal and professional lives. 

It’s our job as parents and caregivers to nurture lateral thinking (to grow that two percent!) but the words we choose and how we choose to use them can unintentionally stop it in its tracks. Here is a three-step communication approach to foster and encourage the type of thinking that will help our kids become the creative, resilient problem solvers of tomorrow.

Step 1: Clarify Your Understanding

Let your child know that you understand her suggestion(s). Studies have found that just a third of what a speaker says is received in the way they intended it, so taking time to clarify what you’re hearing can save a lot of time and frustration. A useful first response to an idea is: “Can you tell me more about that?” This helps you dive deeper into what they’re imagining, rather than assuming you know.

Raising tomorrow's creative thinkers: How to ask questions that encourage problem-solving

Image: Gian Andrea Villa

Step 2: Respond With Positives

Start by sharing what you like about the idea. This can be tricky if you think it won’t work. Try to find three positive things to say about it, and yes… the third is always the hardest! This will help you access insights you hadn't initially considered, and may change your perception. It also keeps the atmosphere positive and open, and gives the idea itself a chance to flourish.

Our default response to suggestions is often to start by highlighting what’s incorrect or problematic. 

But regardless of how nice our tone is, that deflating approach causes the problem solver to feel shut down (either consciously or unconsciously). It also models the behaviour; it risks creating a cycle in which that child may respond in a similar way to others sharing ideas, or even by just acting out over something unrelated soon after.

To create a safe, trusting environment conducive to development and positive relationships, it is vital to celebrate and explore the suggestions and connections your child makes. We want to encourage our kids to articulate how they made those connections, which can lead to accelerated, reflexive learning.

My grandfather, who worked as a communication facilitator for nearly 50 years, often shared this example: 

A young child points to a cow and calls it a horse. Rather correcting her, which will shut down that natural drive to guess or play with ideas, we can look for the connections she made. "It is a farm animal, yes! It four legs and fur, and it is a similar size to a horse. This farm animal has an udder for milking, and so we call this one a cow.”

Step 3: Develop the Idea Together

Express your reservations as a how rather than a but to show you are receptive. So rather than “yes, but, visiting that indoor playground will involve a four-hour round trip,” I could acknowledge the great aspects of my daughter’s idea and then try: “how could we play in an indoor playground closer to us, because that one is very far away?”

Alternatively, rather than using: “that won’t work because…”, you can try: “what we need to do to make that work is…”. Your brainstorming partner is more likely be open to your suggestions on tweaking the idea when they feel supported, rather than shut down and rejected.

Raising tomorrow's creative thinkers: How to ask questions that encourage problem-solving

Image: Alithia Learning

Plan B: Keeping it Real

With practice, these strategies can become second nature. But even then, we won’t always be in the right mindset and conditions to get our responses spot on. Sometimes, we might not have the time or patience to explore those big ideas about how we can fly to our appointment instead of getting in the car.

My response to that one yesterday (“No, not right now. Please just get in the car!”) wasn’t on target. And that’s okay, too. We are human. But it’s still important to be aware of the unconscious effects our words have on the development of our children and our relationships. If, in the moment, you realise you just can’t explore ideas at that time, consider speaking that truth. Try: “I’m really interested in hearing about this, and want to give it my full attention. Can we find a time to do that later today?”

The world of connections that opens for us when we use these tools to explore ideas together is magical; all those ideas can lead us to places and solutions we would never imagine otherwise! So today, instead of going to the park in the rain, we built one inside and drew up plans for a new type of zip-line. It began as something for a park and as we pondered how far it would stretch, it evolved to be a pedal-powered mode of transport for long distances.

Maybe one day this will allow my daughter to fly to her appointments after all!

There is nothing quite as fantastic as a child's imagination. How do you respond to your kids' wild, unfettered ideas? Share in the comments below.


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Talula Hughes


Talula Hughes is from the Mid North Coast of NSW and is the founder of Alithia Learning, a supportive space where families come to connect and children can instigate collaborative hands-on projects, access resources and attend workshops. Talula's love of learning and reflexive relationship with education were instilled in her at an early age by her mother, a creative arts therapist and facilitator, who, through homeschooling, taught her the joys of exploring both the natural world and the world of ideas. 

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