By Tracy Wilson, MS, OTR/L
When the puzzle piece Ava tries doesn’t fit, she chooses a different piece. Sam enjoys playing
with construction toys and always comes up with new ideas for what to build. Emma likes
pepperoni pizza best, but when during play her mother orders a mushroom pizza she willingly
makes her mother’s favorite pizza. These children are flexible thinkers. They independently
solve small problems, demonstrate creativity in their play, and are able to consider another
person’s perspective. When children are flexible thinkers they tend to be able to cope with small
bumps in the road, look forward to trying new things and portray a positive self-concept.
Children who are less flexible and more rigid thinkers often become frustrated when confronted
with everyday challenges or problems, demonstrate limited creativity in play skills and have
difficulty understanding that others have thoughts and opinions that differ from their own. They
often need more support from adults to regulate their emotions and behaviors and may be
anxious in social situations and when trying new things.
Whether your child is a flexible thinker or a more rigid thinker, flexible thinking skills can be
taught, practiced, and enhanced. Below are some strategies you can use to strengthen your
child’s flexible thinking skills.
Engage your child in play with basic open ended toys such as blocks, balls, playdough, etc.
Model various ways you can play with the item and encourage your child to follow your lead.
After modeling a few ideas, ask your child to show you a way he or she can play with the item.
Using words such as “how else could we…?” or “what else can we …?” will encourage your
child to come up with new ideas. For example, you can ask, “How else could we build a tower?”
or, “What else could we make out of playdough?”. Don’t worry if your child initially relies on your
ideas, with practice he will start to initiate his own ideas. When your child initiates a play action
copying him and then adding on to his action shows him that you value his ideas and extends
the creativity of his action. For example, if your child starts to poke his playdough with his
finger, you can imitate that and then say, “Wow, look at all those holes we made, I wonder what
we can put in those holes?”
Combine Play Themes
Combining some of your child’s favorite play items will provide him with a safety base of favorite
toys, but will help him think about new ways to play with them. For example, if your child enjoys
playing with toy animals and blocks show your child how to use the blocks to build little houses
for the animals. Mixing in seasonal elements can also spark creativity. During the fall a basket
of leaves, pumpkins, and maybe Halloween characters can be used to change the direction of
your child’s usual play themes while teaching him about seasonal changes and traditions.
During play with your child, insert a problem into the play theme and guide your child to help
solve the problem. For example, while the train is routinely chugging along on the railroad track,
pretend its wheel suddenly becomes loose. Initially provide your child with some suggestions for
how to solve the problem: Can the engineer put the wheel back on or does he need to call the
train station for help? What kind of tools will he need? Doing this also serves to change your
child’s usual play routine. Before long you may observe your child inserting this new bit of
drama into his play.
Consider Another’s Perspective
To help your child understand that other people have different interests and like different things
than he does, work with your child to come up with a list of “What is your favorite ____?”
questions. He can then “interview” family members, relatives, etc. to determine their favorite
foods, books, movies, hobbies, etc. You can further expand this idea when reading to your child
or playing with him, taking time to discuss what the book or play characters’ preferences might
be and comparing them to his own.
Model Flexible Thinking
Everyday we encounter small challenges that we need to solve. We are making dinner and do
not have a specific ingredient, we wanted to wear a certain shirt, but it isn’t clean. Intentionally
talking through these challenges and how you solve them will help your child learn these skills.
For example, if you run out of an ingredient while making dinner, you can say, “Oh no, I needed
basil for the recipe, but I don’t have any. I don’t have time to go to the store, but that’s ok, I will
try parsley instead.” Likewise when your child encounters a small problem, talk through some
problem solving strategies, “Oh that puzzle piece doesn’t fit, should we try turning it or should
we try a different piece?”. When reading books to your child, point out and discuss how the
characters solve the various problems they encounter.
Praise Flexible Thinking
If after some time your child completes a puzzle, rather than praising the finished product,
praise the way he used flexible thinking skills, “Wow, that was a tricky puzzle, I like the way you
kept trying different pieces until you figured it all out!” or “I know you really like to have cereal for
breakfast, but since we are out of cereal I appreciate you being flexible and having waffles
Provide Routine and Structure
Although this article is about strengthening flexible thinking skills, it is still important to remember
that all children value routine and structure. Having a secure base of routine and structure will
help your child feel more comfortable taking a few risks. Examples include daily schedules and
routines for activities such as getting ready in the morning, mealtimes, nap times, play and
clean-up times, and bedtimes.
Although children can demonstrate a range of problem solving abilities, creative play skills, and
ability to take another’s perspective, if you feel your child demonstrates particular struggles in
these areas, please discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician.