Children feel safe and confident when their activities are predictable. But sometimes circumstances come up, causing changes to their routines or expectations. A child’s ability to accept these changes and “go with the flow” is known as flexible thinking, and while some children can adjust to these changes quickly, others may struggle.
Children who struggle to think flexibly, referred to as rigid thinkers, may have trouble switching between tasks and adjusting to new ideas. If events change unexpectedly, they may get very upset and experience explosive outbursts. Inflexible thinking negatively affects children academically, socially, and creatively. Fortunately, early childhood educators can help them learn to think flexibly.
In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of flexible thinking, how to develop it in young learners, and some flexible thinking activity ideas to use in the classroom.
What is flexible thinking?
Flexible thinking, also known as mental or cognitive flexibility, is the ability to shift one’s thinking in response to change or unexpected circumstances. It’s a critical executive functioning skill for a child’s growth and development. The Child Mind Institute defines flexible thinking as “the ability to think about things in a new or different way.” Children who think flexibly are less likely to throw a tantrum when plans change unexpectedly. They can think about things in new ways, which helps them handle disappointment and manage uncertainty.
For example, suppose you plan an outdoor scavenger hunt with the class, and it rains on the day you scheduled it, so you have to do it indoors instead. A child who struggles with flexible thinking may get frustrated and consumed by the disappointment of not going outside. They may also need help adjusting to an indoor scavenger hunt. On the other hand, a flexible-thinking child may be disappointed but is open to the indoor activity.
Why is flexible thinking important?
Mental flexibility helps children develop a growth mindset. When they’re adaptable to unexpected changes, they’re open to new experiences and learning new ideas. Thinking flexibly enhances their problem-solving skills by prompting them to ask questions about the problem and think about solutions. Socially, mental flexibility helps children learn to accommodate other people’s ideas and opinions, making them more empathetic and collaborative.
Flexible thinking is vital in helping children learn how to read and write. When children use flexible thinking, they are able to understand how words are used in more than one way, such as “You can go outside and play” and “I’ll help you open the can,” and how the same letter can make different sounds, like giraffe and game. They are also able to determine which information they read in a book is essential. Rigid thinkers may take everything they read literally and have trouble pronouncing words correctly. When writing, flexible thinking helps children choose the right words, organize their thoughts, and use correct grammar and spelling.
Mental flexibility also helps children with language learning and math. Children who think flexibly easily accept and use rules and exceptions of language. For example, they understand that while most words end with -ed in the past tense, like talked, called, and filled, there are exceptions like sold, made, and went. They can also learn foreign languages, which have different letter sounds and sentence structures from English. Flexible thinking is crucial for learning math, as it helps children understand that math problems can be solved in various ways. It also helps them understand phrases in word problems and how to solve them.
How to develop flexible thinking
Try the following strategies to develop flexible thinking in your young learners.
Model flexible thinking
One of the best ways to develop flexible thinking is by modeling it. Children learn by observing authority figures around them like parents and teachers. You can demonstrate flexible thinking by speaking aloud while solving a problem. For example, if you’re starting a painting activity with the class and realize you don’t have any paintbrushes, let your children hear you process the disappointment flexibly: “Oh no. That’s disappointing. I was excited about painting today. What will we do? I know! Let’s use bottle caps and sponges instead.” When the children see you solving the problem instead of getting consumed by the disappointment, they learn to do the same.
Bend the rules
Rules are important guidelines that teach children to know the difference between right and wrong and to make the right choices. However, bending some rules develops flexible thinking. For example, you could change the rules to a game they usually play. Bending the rules helps children understand that some rules aren’t set in stone. Rigid thinkers are sticklers for rules, which can affect their social relationships.
Validate their emotions
Rigid thinkers often throw tantrums in the face of uncertainty because they find it challenging to manage sudden change and disappointment, such as breaking their pencil lead. It’s important to empathize with them and make them feel heard so they can adjust to solving the problem (for example, sharpening the pencil or borrowing another one). For example, you could say, “I know you’re upset that your pencil lead broke, and I understand how you feel.”
Routines are critical for child development, as they give children emotional stability and security. However, an over-dependence on routines causes difficulty in coping with unexpected changes. Instead of sticking to the same order of events daily, tweak a few things occasionally.
Other strategies include creating opportunities for flexible thinking, rewarding flexible thinking with a compliment, suggesting alternatives to doing things, and engaging in fun activities that practice flexible thinking.
Flexible thinking activities
Here are some activities to consider for optimizing flexible thinking:
Building and construction play
Building and construction play is a cognitive activity that enhances children’s executive functioning skills. When children engage in this activity often, they develop the ability to quickly shift focus from one thing to another, which builds their cognitive flexibility. They can build towers with plastic cups, make forts with empty boxes, or use building blocks like LEGOS. This activity also helps children improve their attention and concentration.
Creative expression through activities like coloring and painting requires children to use their imagination and teaches them that there’s more than one way to make art. Hand the children coloring books or painting equipment and let them get creative. They can color the grass blue if they’d like.
Switch up a story
Tell a familiar story like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but give it a different ending. Make it even more fun and engaging by drawing pictures or having the children act out the story. Putting a spin on something familiar boosts their creativity.
Play “Yes, and…”
This game teaches children to accept and build on others’ ideas. In a circle, start the conversation with a statement like “It’s a beautiful day outside.” Have each child add on a “Yes, and…” statement, like “Yes, and the sky is blue” until the story ends.
Think up different uses for regular objects
Challenge the children to think of different uses for various regular items. For example, a whiteboard marker could be a microphone or a magic wand. A toilet paper roll could be a microscope, and a funnel could be a trumpet.
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Prepare young learners for change
While flexible thinking is valuable for developmental and academic success, it’s also helpful for the modern workplace and our ever-changing world. Helping children develop flexible thinking at a young age will prepare them to handle unpredictability calmly and efficiently in the future. Remember, it will take patience to get a child from sadness and frustration to acceptance and cooperation, but when it happens, they’re well on their way to a positive and fulfilling life.
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