Help Your Elementary School Student Develop Critical Thinking Skills

By Huntington Learning Center

In today’s complex world, it is not just important, but imperative that children learn to think critically—and not just learn to memorize facts and figures. Although there is a lot of information at every grade that children need to learn—the mechanics of reading and writing, mathematics, science and much more—it is essential for young learners to gain plenty of practice reasoning, questioning assumptions, considering the logic of various ideas and solving problems independently. How can you help foster your elementary-age child’s critical thinking skills? Here are several exercises and suggestions to put into practice in everyday life, which will serve your child long after the school days are over.


Employ the Socratic Method. The Greek philosopher Socrates questioned his students continuously and encouraged oppositional debate among them to get them to think critically and generate new ideas. Most elementary school children go through a phase (or several) in which they ask a lot of questions. The next time you’re asked, “Why?” try answering with, “What do you think?” or “What do you know already and what do you need to know to solve your problem?” Instead of answering questions outright, encourage your child to try to answer them for him or herself. Teach your child to listen to others’ ideas, always keeping in mind that often, there is more than one right answer to a question.


Sort things and recognize patterns. Any activity in which a child is asked to identify a pattern is one that helps build critical thinking skills. This could be as simple as sorting laundry or organizing toys during daily chores, or playing thinking games such as chess, puzzles, tangrams, pentominoes or Sudoku. When driving around town, ask your child to name the shapes of the signs he or she sees. Have him or her look for patterns in the grocery store (for example, how many price signs end in $0.99 versus $0.50, etc.). Or challenge your child to predict the next item in a series (if driving through a neighborhood where all the streets are named for trees, for example, have your child guess what the next street might be).


Talk about facts versus opinions. Teach your child about the difference between things that are true and always true (your child has two eyes, for example) and things that cannot be proven true 100% of the time (your cat is the best pet ever). You can talk about this any time, even when watching television together. After commercials, ask your child what statements the commercial made about the product being advertised; then ask whether the statements were fact or opinion, and how he or she knew the difference. You can also discuss who made the commercial and why, analyzing the company’s point of view versus the consumer’s. 


Summarize stories whenever you read. When you and your child read together, ask him or her to summarize what happened at the end of each chapter or major section of a book. The ability to recap the major points of texts is an important critical thinking skill that your child will use again and again as a student—from elementary school through college. If you get a newspaper at home, look at headlines together each morning and ask your child to guess what the story will be about.  Then read the story and decide if the headline did a good job of summarizing the information. Ask your child to write his or her own headline for the story.


Deliberate and discuss. The next time you and your child do not agree on something, give him or her the opportunity to persuade you to see his or her side. Don’t worry—this does not have to mean that every rule in your house is negotiable. However, it is important to teach your child to back up his or her ideas and arguments and think about why he or she believes or does not believe things. Push your child to think about his or her arguments carefully. In addition, an important part of thoughtful debate is learning to see things from other people’s points of view.


Analyze like a scientist. Urge your child to think like a scientist and apply the scientific method to anything and everything. The main components of the scientific method are observation, developing a hypothesis, prediction and experimentation. Teaching your child this practice of thinking will give him or her the tools to think through issues and figure out solutions to all kinds of problems.


Embrace the practice of critical thinking in your household and in all that you do, encourage your child to be a curious student of life. In doing so, you will teach your child to be resourceful when tackling school and other problems, which will help him or her gain confidence, perceptiveness and a lifelong love of learning.


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