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4 Ways to Boost Your Kids' Thinking Skills Through Reflection

We really love doing things with our kids. Building pillow forts, going to the park, traveling... you name it, we prefer to do it with our kids. That's not to say we never need an adult break - we really do. But after a day sans kids we start missing their little voices, their exuberant curiosity, and even their sticky fingers and adamant demands.

We know the kids love family time. Any time they get to be with both mummy and daddy and do something fun together is just about the best time possible in their book. You can practically see the sense of security and love beaming off their little faces. But we sometimes wonder how much they'll remember of what we do, and whether they're learning anything along the way. When they look back, will it just be a blur of general positive feelings? Or are our little ones picking up some life lessons through our family adventures?

Deeper understandings through reflection

With my personal background in Montessori education, I have long been passionate about the subject of child development. Research from leading child development organizations like the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in the United States has found that the key to kids learning something long-lasting from their experiences is reflection. Reflection happens when kids talk about and think about their experiences.

When kids talk about and think about their experiences in a way that encourages reflection, they are more likely to find meaning in their memories. Rather than just knowing what happened, they start to analyze what happened and think about things like:

  • Why did it happen?
  • What did I find most interesting?
  • How did it make me feel?
  • Was it like anything else I've seen?
  • Did I learn something that I can use in another situation?

Why is it important for kids to analyze their experiences? Of course we don't want our kids constantly analyzing what they do. A romp in the park, a splash in the pool, a funny bedtime story - it's important to be able to just enjoy things without any analysis at all. But some experiences contain deeper lessons, like:

  • Why was the tiger pacing back and forth? Was it uncomfortable in its enclosure? Did it have enough space? Should wild animals be kept in zoos? Is it sometimes ok? When?
  • Why did the tower of blocks fall over this time and not last time? Did I build it in a different way? What could I try next time?
  • Why did my friend get upset when I asked her for her toy? How could I ask her next time so that she does not feel upset? What else could I do so that we can share our toys happily?
  • Why do people in Italy sound different from us? Why don't we speak that language? Why do we speak the languages we speak? Where am I from? Where are mummy and daddy from? Where are my grandmas and grandpas from?

When kids get used to mummy and daddy asking them deeper questions about their experiences, they get used to thinking more deeply about what they've seen or done. They start to ask themselves questions and throw themselves into finding answers. The world becomes a more interesting place, and they understand more about it. At school and in daily life, they get better at weighing up situations, coming to informed conclusions, and making smart decisions.

How to get kids reflecting

Of course we naturally talk to our kids about what they see, hear, and do... But research has shown there are specific ways to help your kids develop their thinking skills by using these reflection-boosting strategies.

1.  Ask open-ended questions about your child's experiences. Instead of asking questions that can be answered with one word, like "What colour is it?", or "Do you like it?", ask open-ended questions that encourage your kids to think and communicate. You could ask things like "Why do you think the tiger is pacing back and forth?", or "What do you think you can do next time you want to borrow someone's toy?".

Be sure to accept what children say, even if it doesn't seem logical or correct. Avoid saying things like, "No, that's wrong". The main goal is to get kids confidently thinking for themselves and discussing their ideas with you. If you really want to steer them in a particular direction, try asking them questions that lead them to gradually realize what you are trying to tell them, or tell them an anecdote. But make sure you are not always "leading" your children towards an answer you think is correct. The idea is to get your kids thinking for themselves as often as possible, rather than just regurgitating a "right" answer.

As your children voice their thoughts, ask further open-ended questions that help your kids to extend their thinking. It's sometimes a big surprise how very insightful kids can be if encouraged to think for themselves.

2. Comment on what children say and do. Sometimes, all children need in order to feel encouraged to talk about what they're doing is to hear some small, friendly observational comment. You might say, "I see you used lots of colours in your tower today". This might prompt your child to tell you about a particular pattern of colours he or she is creating. This might turn into a conversation and some hands-on parent-child exploration of making patterns with lego, for example.

When looking back on past experiences, for example when sitting down and looking at your family heirbook together, you might say, "I remember you wanted to wear your blue dress on your birthday". This might get your daughter talking about why she wanted to wear that dress (maybe it was a present from grandma?) and this could lead to all kinds of other conversation about her birthday and about family celebrations in general.

3. Document experiences. Because young children find it difficult to remember experiences with the breadth and accuracy that adults do (although adults are often lacking in this area, too!), a great way to help kids to reflect on their experiences is to document them. That way, when the fun is over and there's some time to reflect, you can sit down together and remember what happened, and talk about the deeper meanings involved.

For example, you could take photos of a family adventure abroad. When you get home, show your kids the photos and jot down (or record) what they say about them. They might say things like: "Those children live in these boats by the sea. Even the small babies can swim. But the water is dirty". Then, you might like to compile your photos and the children's comments in a book. (Find out more about how to make an heirbook of your family experiences).
Finally, when your book is ready, sit down as a family and enjoy looking through the book together, reading your children's comments back to them and talking about what each of you in the family remembers. Help your kids to make sense of their experiences by asking them open-ended questions (as discussed above).

Documenting some of your special family adventures makes it more likely your kids will remember more of what they saw and did, and find meaning in their experiences. It also means you'll have many more times over the years to pore over and laugh over the photos, comments and stories capturing your shared family memories.

4. Make connections. As kids get older, they learn to think not just about what is right in front of them, but also about larger concepts. They learn to make connections between what is happening now, and what has happened or might happen in other situations. For instance, they might realize that the fact that people in Italy speak a different language from at home might mean that when they are visiting another new country, those people might speak yet another language. Being able to apply concepts learned to new situations is an essential component of intelligence, and an important life skill.

Help kids to make these connections by making comments or asking questions that steer them in a certain direction. For example, you could say something like, "We're going to Spain next month. I'm going to pack lots of the things we took to Italy. But I'm not taking my book of Italian words, I don't need Italian words in Spain...". (Of course, the comments you make will need to be pitched to make sense to your child at his or her age level).

Once kids get used to making connections and as they get older, they will eventually even reach a stage at which they can think about their thinking (usually in the second half of primary school). They'll start saying things like, "I thought people would say "grazie" in Spain but in Spain they speak Spanish, and in Spanish it's "gracias". I didn't know that before but I know that now. Next time we go to a new country I'll know that maybe they speak a different language, too".

Thinking about thinking is called metacognition and is pretty much the holy grail of thinking skills. Metacognition helps your kids to understand when and how to use certain thinking strategies, which will help them to handle life problems as well as to tackle some really thorny academic challenges at school.


We don't want our kids to have to analyze everything all the time. Sometimes, family fun is just family fun. But it's good to know that just by chatting with our kids about their experiences with a bit of thoughtfulness, we can help our kids to think more deeply and handle challenges more skillfully.

Do you ever talk to your kids about activities you have done as a family? Please feel free to share your experiences of what your kids say and do. Have you ever noticed any reflection, and if so, what do your kids say and do that shows you they are analyzing their experiences?

"How planning and reflection develop young children's thinking skills."
"Using reflection to connect and inspire learning."


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