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Building Problem-Solving Skills: Gather Round Activities

Explore parent-child activities that help young children learn problem solving skills from birth to three.

Father and daughter rolling dough

Gather Round activities are designed to help families promote their child’s language and literacy skills, while also nurturing the other domains of development. A children’s book is suggested for each topic area and age and activities related to the book based on a range of developmental domains and early skills. The activities can be used with parents as a tool to promote children’s learning through book-sharing and age-appropriate parent-child activities.

Birth to 12 Months


Peek-a-Who by Nina Laden
Publisher: Chronicle Books

Activities that build on the ideas in Peek-a-Who:

1) Stuff a long, thin scarf through an empty paper towel tube, with just a little bit of the scarf hanging out at one end. Help your baby grasp this end of the scarf. Say “pull” as you help him gently pull the scarf out. As you do, use words to describe the experience, “You are pulling the scarf. The scarf is so long! Have you pulled it all out yet? Nooooo. Wow, here it is—all done.”

2) Hold your baby in front of a mirror. Watch as she looks at her (and your) reflection. Then step away and say, “Peek-a-who?” Step back in front of the mirror and point to your baby’s reflection: “Peek-a-[your baby’s name].” Point to your reflection, “Peek-a-Daddy.” Activities like this help your baby begin to understand that her body is separate from others and belongs to her. They also teach her new words—like the names of the important people who love her!

3) Put words to your baby’s actions. When you see your baby wants to be picked up, you can raise your arms and say “Up?” and then lift him up. Or if your young baby kicks his legs and arms to let you know he enjoys an activity and wants you to keep going, you can say, “You’re telling Daddy you want more!” This helps build strong communication skills.

4) Lift your baby up and show her how to turn the light-switch up and down. Then, while you hold her and supervise carefully, let her have a try at flicking the light switch on and offer. Babies delight in games that teach them “cause and effect.” Make turning off the light a fun part of your baby’s bedtime routine.

5) Play peek-a-boo with a favorite toy or stuffed animal. Lay a blanket or dish towel over the toy and ask your baby, “Where is the car?” Wait a moment and see if he will reach for the towel or look toward it. Then you can lift the towel up and say, “Peek-a-boo! There is the car!” This builds thinking and problem-solving skills.

12–24 Months


Is Your Mama a Llama? by Deborah Guarino
Publisher: Scholastic

Activities that build on the ideas in Is Your Mama a Llama?:

1) Point out the animals you see in your community. “That animal is soft, and fluffy, and says ‘meow.’ Is her mama a llama?” (Pause and see if your child says, “Noooo.”) Then say, “I think her mama is a … CAT.” Hearing the word and seeing the animal help your child make the connection and learn new words.

2) Choose some items in your house that you have pairs of such as two apples, two socks, and two crayons. Mix them up on the floor, choose one (a sock, for example), and see if your child can find the other sock. This type of game helps your child develop problem-solving and observation skills.

3) Take your child to the supermarket and show him a red apple and name it. Then ask him, “Do you see any more apples?” Does he look, point, or name the other apples he sees? You can play this game in every aisle of the market which keeps toddlers busy and builds thinking skills.

4) As you sort laundry, hold up a shirt and ask your child if it belongs to her or Mommy. See if she can put some of the clothing items in categories based on whom they belong to. This type of problem-solving activity helps your child develop her thinking skills.

5) Label cardboard boxes for each type of toy your child has (cars, trains, blocks, etc.) Glue or tape a picture of one of the type of toy on the front of each box to help your child learn where to put away each toy. Over time, he will learn to put all his cars in the “car box” and all his stuffed animals in the “animal box.” Not only does this teach responsibility, but it also supports a child’s problem-solving skills. Note that most young toddlers will need help with clean-up.

24–36 Months


It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles Shaw
Publisher: HarperFestival

Activities that build on the ideas in It Looked Like Spilt Milk:

1) Go outside with your toddler, point out a cloud and tell your child what you think it looks like. You might even use the pattern in the book to describe what you see in the sky: “It looks like a sheep…but it’s not a sheep.” Then ask your child to pick a cloud and tell you what she thinks it looks like. This builds imagination.

2) Make some cloud art. Drip some washable white paint onto a dark piece of paper and have your toddler help you fold the paper in half. Open it up again and ask your child what his “cloud” looks like. Or you can spray a small dab of shaving cream onto a piece of paper and do the same thing.

3) Have a pretend picnic. Cut some shapes out of cardboard, such as a circle, square, and triangle. Show your toddler how you can pretend the circle is a cookie, the square is a piece of toast, or the triangle is a slice of pizza. Pretend to nibble and offer your child a taste too. Have some stuffed animals or figurines join you. Playing pretend builds imagination and thinking skills.

4) Give your toddler the chance to explore play-dough or homemade salt-dough with a child-safe rolling pin, fork, or dull plastic knife. Talk about what he is doing with each tool and what he has created when he is done. This type of play encourages exploration and problem-solving skills, as well as fine motor skills—the use of his fingers and hands.

5) Offer your child a collection of cardboard boxes, such as old shoeboxes, and encourage her to stack them and build with them. Block play builds many problem-solving and thinking skills as children figure out how to make their structures balance and use their imaginations to decide what to build (a house? barn? apartment building?). Join in and build on your child’s play by asking your child how she wants to play together with this new creation.


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