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10 ideas for problem solving activities.

When children start school in Reception they are given lots of opportunity to work together to solve problems; to find out that being stuck is good, because when they become unstuck, that’s where learning happens. At Willow Lane we know these types of activities are important not just for our Early Years children but also for other children throughout the school. That’s why we also use our Wild Life area to deliver forest school sessions. Many of these activities are taken from our Forest School Curriculum and can be done in the back garden or in the home. They are a great way to encourage children to think of different ways of solving problems and working together. They are also a great way for all of the family to be involved.

At the end of each Forest School session we have a period of reflection. This would be good to do at home as well. You could ask questions like: Did everyone get a chance to speak? Did you have different jobs or did you do the same jobs? How did you decide what to do? What did you do when something went wrong? When did you work best as a team? Why was that successful? If you could do it again, what would you like to be different?

1.  Tower building

There are lots of different variants on this game of engineering and teamwork. A favourite resource many teachers use is dried spaghetti and marshmallows, some give ten balloons and 1 long strip of masking tape. When we have done this in Forest School we have used what we can find in our Wildlife Area – you could use tins, cereal boxes, recycling, DVD cases or whatever you wanted. The object of this problem solving activity is to build the tallest freestanding tower in ten minutes. Give any extra instructions you wish, e.g. they can break the balloons if they wish, they can only use the materials that you have said, you give an extra challenge by saying it must hold a certain object for 3 seconds. The tower must be built on a table or the floor. If you wish, you may add the following instructions:

No talking.

Each team member may use only one hand.

One team member may not touch the materials and only give directions.

You can use one or more of these limitations in 60-second intervals. If you have enough to split into teams, the first team to complete their tower wins.

2. Move it

This game can be set up by drawing a grid with an odd number of cells. The higher the number of cells the harder it is. The following website has a link to this activity on line (which will make it clearer than this explanation!) HTTPS://

In the above grid you have two sets of objects (coloured squares) with one free cell. You have to swap the squares so they are on the opposite side. You can only move one at a time, you can only move into a free cell, you can jump over one other rectangle at a time.

You could set this out on the floor and use any two sets of different objects. Increase the grid and objects to make it harder.

What is the fewest number of moves it can be done in?

3. “Laser” Web

Use a large ball of string to create a giant web from one end of a room to the other. The goal is for individuals or teams to move through the web without touching the string. If they do so, they have been “zapped by a laser” and must try again. For greater suspense and for older players, use blindfolds or turn off the lights, allowing players to touch the string, but not pull it down or out of its original shape. You could even try it with one person blindfolded and another person giving instructions!

4.  Group Drawing

For this activity to work best it needs a group of 3, so adults may need to be involved! Each person on the team has a one of the following roles:

Drawer. The drawer attempts to recreate a pre-drawn design they cannot see (a picture from a magazine or newspaper would work well as they may know a familiar picture from the house). They take directions from the talker. They stand with their back to the talker and viewer and may not talk.

Talker. The talker describes the design to the drawer, without seeing the design. They may question the viewer. They may not use hand gestures.

Viewer. The viewer sees the design. However, they are not allowed to talk and must communicate nonverbally to the talker.  Additionally, they must not draw the design in the air or actually show the design with their gestures.

The activity ends when the viewers say they are satisfied with the drawings. The activity can be repeated so everyone has a chance to do the different roles. At the end you could celebrate all the drawings

For the activity to work with two people – you can allow the talker to see the picture and impose a time limit for when they need to be finished.

5.  Cross the River

This can work in small teams or one small group (if you search ‘cross the river’ you will find other examples). When enlisting adult and older children to help, make sure the younger children get a chance to lead the learning. Create a “river” (using chalk, masking tape for two parallel lines, or a rug or blanket although the physical material will cause its own problems to be overcome).

There are various ways of doing this activity – essentially you have to get all the team across the river – that could be width ways or length ways. Sometimes stepping stones are used. You could have one raft for each team. They could each have a pebble (a small piece of paper). They all have to work together to manoeuvre the raft or stepping stones across the river so that at the end they can all jump off it at the same time. To make it easier you could put an ‘island’’ or two in the river that players can use to stand on but can’t move, players could be given a rock to put in the river that can’t be moved once it’s placed. To make it harder reduce the number of pebbles, make the river wider, pebbles can only be placed by certain players, or they can only be used a certain number of times (if the river is very poisonous and toxic for example). The raft is very unstable and will sink if you jump on it. If you give each player his or her own small raft, add the rule that you must have 3 points of your body on the raft at all times i.e. 2 hands and a foot.

6.  Stranded

Create an “island” in the middle of a large area using tape, chalk or whatever is to hand. Two or more people from each team go to the “island” and the other team members try to find something to get the “stranded” children off the island. They may use shoelaces, items of clothing (socks tied together), or any other items they can find. You may need to hide some appropriate gear for them to use if you are inside. Outside games of Stranded usually provide more options – tree limbs, ivy vines, etc.

This game reminds me of another problem of the Konigsberg Bridge. You could set up a situation similar to the one in the link below. For the keen problem solvers out there, research the Konigsberg Bridge to find out how it opened up a new branch of mathematics.

7.  Memory Game

This can be done with household items or with things you collect if you go out for some exercise through Fairfield nature reserve or near the Lune.

What you need: Collection bags
The activity:

  • Ask the children to make a collection of things that they find in their natural area i.e. leaf, moss, feather, stone, acorn, pine cone. (If necessary prepare the area beforehand with appropriate objects). Avoid wild flowers as the children should not be encouraged to pick these as the bees need them, especially in early spring
  • Lay a collection out on the ground
  • Ask a child to memorise the objects and turn away
  • Remove one object and ask the child chosen to guess which object has been removed
  • Discuss strategies for memorising them, are they taking a picture of what’s there? Are they linking the objects together in their mind to help remember a chain of objects? Some children wowed us in assembly at being able to remember several digits of Pi not long ago, so with some practise at this game, there will be some new challengers next time

8.  Building bridges

In a group of no more than 5, have three lengths of string (each about 1 metre). Show the children a drinks bottle (which is full of water). They can hold it if they want to, or measure it, but cannot take it away from the teacher / leader. The groups are then challenged to build a freestanding bridge using sticks (or other materials from around the home) and the pieces of string. If using home materials, it would be a good idea to say what these can be, rather than have children ransacking the house for more materials. Newspaper folded very tightly and twisted can be very strong. The bridge has to be tall enough for the bottle to be passed underneath standing upright. It also has to be wide enough for the bottle to be passed underneath lying on its side, and strong enough for the bottle to balance on top for 10 seconds. Hint: decide how much help you want to give the children – you could suggest using three sticks tied at each end, to make tripods (which are strong structures and will support the top of the bridge), OR they could build a tower at each end of the bridge using the same technique used in the previous activity for tower building.

Give the groups 10-15 minutes to build the bridges and then test for height, width and strength.

The next step could be to use their skills of building small bridges to build something bigger and stronger. This time, the bridge needs to be high enough for a child to crawl underneath it, and strong enough for a child to sit on top of it. Give the groups more string – it needs to be thick string this time – we suggest decent garden twine.

Health and safety point – We don’t want any injuries so be aware that children may fall off the bridges. They are unlikely to be very high – we suggest that when the first child sits on the bridge, they are helped by other members of their team who can hold their hands. Once one child has tried the bridge, it is likely that they will all want to sit on it at the same time, this would probably end up with a heap on the floor so we would advise against it. Also, the bridge would probably become more unstable after one person has sat on it so it would be a good idea to end the activity before an older member of the family comes to test it as well!

Give the groups 15-20 minutes to build the bridges and then, as before, go round to test each bridge for height and strength.

9.  Categories or ‘Stop the bus!’

The game: Using some way of generating a random letter (there are apps for this, or you could use letters in a scrabble bag, or you cut up letters from the alphabet), players have to write down one item/object/thing for each category. When you have filled in each section you shout ‘stop the bus!’ and then you check your answers to make sure they are all accepted by the group. You get a point for each one if no one else has the same answer as you. If you ‘stop the bus’ and everyone agrees your answers are acceptable you get an extra point.

Setting it up: Each person needs a piece of paper and something to write with. Decide on the headings you want to use, make sure that they are something that everyone can do. You’ll need a section for each heading and a section for the points at the end of each round. Some headings you might want to use are: Animals, Foods, countries, cities, clothing, furniture, things you can find on the beach, things you might do in the park. You could link it to the topic the children have been studying, such as item from prehistoric time or places in Europe.

10. Rory’s story cubes

This is a great way to help children make up stories. Problem solving often involves making links and connections and this is a great way of doing it. It is taken from this toy

But you can make your own with some pebbles and permanent marker or just some card and will be a fun activity in itself. You need different symbols that are simple and clear – it doesn’t matter if people interpret them in different ways. In the game you can buy, there are 9 cubes so there are 54 different images – but you don’t need that many. They could be linked to topics the children remember e.g.

A pyramid A magnet A scarab beetle A mouth
Muscles on an arm A forest A cave A volcano
An axe A magic wand A bird The moon

If you search for ‘story cubes printable’ there are lots of ideas.

One game you can play is to see who can make the longest chain of events without hesitating (too long). A player picks out or rolls the dice to find the first symbol, then starts their story with that. They then pick out another symbol and continue their story. You could play it by making up a story together each taking turns, or everyone could see the next symbol and the first person to link it into the story gets a point. The first person to get a number of points wins, or you could do it in rounds if you use a timer for each round.

This website has ideas of how you might take this further and write your own story from it.