Brainstorming a Path to Critical Thinking

I was recently working in an early childhood classroom where the teacher was discussing nocturnal animals. After explaining what nocturnal meant, she asked the children to come up with reasons why some animals would rather stay up at night and sleep during the day.

She then wrote all of the children’s responses down on a chart paper. She told the children that the list would be up for them to think about over the next few weeks and that they could add items to the list if they had additional ideas.

The Long List

When I went back to that classroom a week later, I noticed that the list had grown significantly. When I asked the teacher about the growing list, she told me that the children were really intrigued by the question and kept coming up with new ideas. She also told me that the children had been acting out their ideas in the dramatic play area, having conversations at snack time, and talking to their parents and siblings about their ideas at home. 

When I sat down to have snack with the students and the teacher, one little boy started talking about how he saw glowing eyes in the forest when his family was driving home in the evening from his grandparents’ house. He proceeded to tell his friends that he thought that nocturnal animals must have special eyes that see things better at night. This child had engaged in critical thinking. He saw glowing eyes in the forest, determined the eyes must belong to a nocturnal animal since it was after dark, and then reasoned that nocturnal animals had special eyes.

The Making of a Critical Thinking Mind

Critical thinking is one of the most important skills that today’s young children will need for the future. Ellen Galinsky, author of “Mind in the Making,” includes critical thinking on her list of the seven essential life skills needed by every child.

As we consider a world where educators are preparing students for jobs that don’t even exist yet, fostering children’s ability to think critically is an essential. Any time children use their existing knowledge to contemplate why things happen or to evaluate ideas and form opinions, they are engaging in critical thinking.

While there are many ways for a teacher to support children in developing or exercising critical thinking skills, brainstorming activities are a great way to get started if you are just starting to think about how you can support critical thinking.

Beautiful Brainstorming

When you engage children in brainstorming activities that begin with “why do you think…,” you are asking them to think critically. When you ask children to brainstorm solutions to problems and encourage them to keep coming up with additional ideas before settling on a solution, you are teaching them to think outside the box and consider a variety of solutions before deciding on the action they want to take. This is a really important critical thinking skill.

 When you encourage children to continue thinking about the brainstorming activity over time and provide engaging props (like nocturnal animal puppets) and visual reminders (a list on the wall), you will find the children deepen their thinking over time.

You can also use ideas from a brainstorming list created by your students to identify future activities, stories and materials that they find interesting. Think of all the ways you can brainstorm with your students by engaging in some of your own brainstorming.

lisa sutherland author head shot

Lisa Sutherland is the Director of Early Learning for Cognia, a school improvement and accrediting organization. Her favorite thing to do in the world after scuba diving is supporting early childhood programs in exploring what elements of continuous improvement will be most meaningful for their organization and how to implement them.

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