Problem solving and engineering in play

Child reaches under a fence for a ball, using a bat.Unless teachers and parents resist the urge to help as soon as we first see that a child has a problem, we might miss seeing how the child can solve it, possibly developing new skills in the process. (Of course, we use our knowledge of the individual child and the situation to judge when to step in.) A Framework for K-12 Science Education describes the practice of “Asking Questions and Defining Problems” in engineering: A basic practice of engineers is to ask questions to clarify the problem, determine criteria for a successful solution, and identify constraints.

Child reaches farther under a fence for a ball, using a bat.Engineering learning in preschool can be part of emergent curriculum, encouraged whenever we see children using materials to create solutions to the problems they encounter in their play. Engineering design processes do not have to be taught through teacher-designed problems presented to children to solve. In solving an engineering problem, children (and adults) use the practices (described in the Framework) of defining problems, developing and using models, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, using mathematics and computational thinking, designing solutions, engaging in argument from evidence, and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. Milano cautions that “…engineering design core ideas are not designed to necessarily be sequential. Elementary students should be encouraged to use the phases fluidly, in order to avoid the misinterpretation that engineering design is a formulaic, rigid process” (pg 13). Appendix I of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) also states that the component ideas of engineering design “…do not always follow in order…At any stage, a problem-solver can redefine the problem or generate new solutions to replace an idea that just isn’t working out.” Young children are famous for not always following in order and they can engineer solutions to problems they encounter. 

Child has moved the ball close enough to grab with hands.In the photos we see a three-year-old using engineering practices at a developmentally appropriate level to solve the problem of retrieving a ball that rolled outside a playground fence. He did not verbalize the question but by his actions he was asking, “How can I get the ball?” He began the investigation and clarified the problem when he reached with his arm to grab the ball and found his arm was too short (measurement). He determined he needed a tool that could reach farther than his arm. A constraint was that he only had the playground materials available to him. Using a bat, he tried again to reach the ball, succeeded but still had to try repeatedly to push the ball in various strokes before it slid towards him, close enough to reach under the fence. He was demonstrating an understanding of engineering design as described in the NGSS K-2-ETS1 Engineering Design. 

I hope that I can apply the same determination and creativeness to problem solving in the new year!


Milano, Mariel. 2013. The Next Generation Science Standards and Engineering for Young Learners: Beyond Bridges and Egg Drops. pg 10 Science and Children October 2013

National Research Council. 2012. A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Next Generation Science Standard K-2-ETS-1 Engineering Design. Students who demonstrate understanding can: Ask questions, make observations, and gather information about a situation people want to change to define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool.

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