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Early Years Alphabet: C is for Critical Thinking

Teaching our early years critical thinking is fundamental to their language and literacy development, so it’s important we nurture this skill as much as possible within our settings.

Critical thinking happens when children use their experience and existing knowledge to develop problem solving skills, as well as:

  • Comparing and contrasting.
  • Explaining how things work or why they happen.
  • Evaluating ideas.
  • Forming opinions.
  • Understanding others’ perspectives.
  • Predicting future events.

According to Dr Marilyn Price-Mitchell, critical thinking skills don’t fully develop until adolescence, but you can build the foundations for these skills at a much younger age. As soon as children start speaking in sentences they can start building these critical thinking techniques and skills, so it’s time to help them develop as much as we can.

Photo by Monstera from Pexels

When children start engaging in critical thinking their language skills start expanding. This is because thinking critically encourages them to use more complex language with words like “if”, “because” and “then”, incorporating verb tenses and conditional words into their everyday speech. Simultaneously, as children’s language develops it also increases their ability to think critically. In the same way, when reading stories children must be able to do more than just sound out words – an important part of reading books is to figure things out that are not clearly stated in the text. Using questions like “why do you think she did that?” or “what do you think is going to happen?” encourages children to use critical thinking skills like predicting, explaining and problem-solving, which prepares them for reading books on their own when they are older.

As children all develop at different rates, it can be hard to know when to start encouraging these habits in children. There are a few signs to look out for, however, that may indicate children are naturally starting to think critically. These can include:

  • Concentrating.
  • Being persistent.
  • Questioning things.
  • Being enthusiastic about learning.
  • Trying to solve problems.
  • Using past experience to deal with new situations.

As practitioners there are many ways for us to encourage children to think critically, ranging from making sure their environment is interesting and challenging for young minds, with spaces and situations they can explore and occasional surprise elements or activities that are outside of their normal routine.

Activities that enable children to use their memory (such as drawing something not visually available at the time) or to problem-solve (such as creating a boat out of paper) are perfect for nurturing critical thinking skills. We can also use the way we discuss topics with children to encourage their thinking. Inviting children to be clear when they ask or explain something, accurate and make sure what they’re saying is true, relevant and stay on topic (which may take some verbal shepherding!) and logical with how they come to conclusions and to be fair and empathetic when drawing conclusions all help with developing a child’s critical thinking skills.

Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels

Children with strong critical thinking abilities will find learning easier, as they are more used to problem-solving, learning from mistakes and approaching new challenges with confidence in their own abilities.