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Dear Debi,
The youngest children I watch are continuously starting new projects. They try to learn things on their own, but aren’t always succeding. How do I get them to finish a project on their own?
Lindsey, Irvine, CA
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Choose age-appropriate and open-ended activities
  • Offer guidance
  • Allow kids to walk away when frustrated, but try again later
Expert Advice
Anita Britt, Ph.D.
Anita Britt, Ph.D.
Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles
Allowing children to problem-solve through activities is very important because it helps them develop the tools to deal with challenges throughout their lives. If children are encouraged to solve problems and learn to be persistent, studies show that they become very good “out-of-the-box” thinkers. It encourages creativity and they become more confident people.

The activities you choose should be age-appropriate and challenging, but not so challenging that they will fail doing it. I think that limiting the amount of tools for them to complete a project is also important. For example, when really young kids are coloring, put out only 10 crayons instead of a box of 64. This way they won’t be overwhelmed by all the choices and they can focus on the project which will help them succeed.

The activities should be open-ended and not be about a final product. If a project focuses on a specific final product, then children may be disappointed because their product doesn’t look like the example. Also, asking kids questions during the activity and allowing them to work through and problem-solve will help them develop critical thinking and find ways to figure out something on their own.

Child Care providers should guide children through this process and not march them through it so that they lose their desire to continue. Forcing children to finish something that they can’t do can be very harmful to children’s self-esteem.

If a child is getting frustrated, give them verbal cues to help them. But allow them to walk away and come back to it later. Say to them, “You can continue trying this later.” That way, they know it’s fine to take a break from something, but that they should try again later. But don’t try to give too much direction. If children are given too much direction early on in life, they feel that there’s a right and wrong way to do everything in life. This can stunt their creativity and discourage them from becoming self-reliant.

If kids are persistent, they will feel mastery of a project, pride, and a sense of accomplishment. They will say things like “I did it!” which builds confidence. It also encourages an awareness that even if there is not a solution immediately or if they make a mistake, they can learn from it and keep trying.
Child Care provider Comments
Child care provider for 4 years
I had a child who wanted to make a rocket ship out of a cardboard box. He was trying to glue the wings on with regular glue and it wouldn’t stick. I wanted him to be persistent and figure how to do it by himself so I didn’t step in when it wasn’t working. He got frustrated and cried and had to walk away from the project. When he was ready, I put out all the materials that were available for him and that would make the wings stick. He was glowing because he had figured it out on his own. He felt so good about himself.
Diane Ferguson
Diane Ferguson
Child care provider for 3 years
I give the kids play dough and have them make whatever they come up with. Some kids are perfectionists and get upset when their play dough sculpture isn’t turning out the way they had envisioned it. When they get too upset, I offer them options like walking away for a minute or starting over in a different way. But I reinforce the importance of persisting through a project so I encourage them to come back to it and try again. When they finish a project, I can see they feel empowered and that really builds up their self-esteem.
Child care provider for 4 years
I try to put out activities that are age-appropriate yet challenging for the kids. I like to choose one activity that I leave out all week long. That way, they can revisit it in their own time once they get past their frustrations. I encourage them to take small steps and praise them as they continue to do the project. I definitely let them problem-solve on their own and ask them questions that lead them to rethink the project and look at it from different angles.

Art with Salt and Ice Featured Activity:
Art with Salt and Ice
Problem-Solving Activities Featured Video:
Problem-Solving Activities
Topic: Child Development
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The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
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Zero to Three: National Center For Infants, Toddlers and Families
PBS Teacher Source
National Child Care Information Center (NCCIC)
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