Weekly Program
Seeing Things In New Ways

Colleen Russo Johnson, PhD

Chief Scientist

Key Takeaways:
  • Flexible thinking is a skill that helps children solve problems, see things in new ways, and think creatively.
  • Children practice flexible thinking in many different ways - from turning household materials into a fort to creating rules for a pretend game.
  • Parents can support children's flexible thinking by asking open-ended questions, like "What else do you think we could use this cardboard box for?"

If necessity is the mother of invention, then flexible thinking is its co-parent! The process of inventing and creating requires the ability to see things in new ways and test various ideas.1

Kids are incredible mini-inventors. While eating a bowl of cereal, a child might uncover a new use for their spoon and begin catapulting small crunchy objects around the room. If a spoon can be a catapult, then who's to say a bowl can't be a hat?

By taking a familiar object and using it for a different (and some would argue a more fun) purpose, the child is building flexible thinking and expanding their perspectives of the physical world.

Importantly, when we see things in new ways, we do things in new ways.

What Does This Look Like at:

3-4 years

  • Pretend play. Using objects in various ways (e.g., using a scarf for both dress up and as a doll's blanket).
  • Trial and error. Using trial and error to complete different tasks (e.g., seeing how tall they can build a tower with blocks before it falls).
  • Shifting perspective. Seeing two or more ways to group related items, using characteristics such as shape, color, etc. (e.g., gathering all of the red, rectangular blocks, but not the red, square blocks).2

4-5 years

  • Brainstorming. Thinking of various real and pretend solutions to a problem, and testing those solutions to determine which works best.
  • Flexibility. Understanding that rules can be flexible and change depending on the situation.
  • Categorizing. Separating objects based on 2-3 rules and smoothly shifting between new rules (e.g., organizing toys by color and then deciding to organize them by type and color).3

5-6 years

  • Collaborative creativity. Working with others to dream up new solutions by building off of one another's ideas to create something novel.
  • Finding inspiration. Children use others' ideas and strategies as sources of inspiration. A child who is stuck on building a base for a ramp may notice a nearby child's tower and use the tower as a model for their new structure.
  • Reflecting. Thinking through why and how specific ideas work/don't work and brainstorming new strategies for improving them.

How Can We Encourage Cognitive Flexibility at Home?

  • Ask questions. Encourage flexible thinking by asking your child open-ended questions like, "What other materials do we think we can use to wrap this present?"
  • Think out loud. Ask your child about their thinking process. For example, "How did you know that puzzle piece was the right one?" or "What do you think will happen when you pour in the baking soda?"
  • Mix it up. Have a backward day or hour. Put your clothes on backward, walk backward, read a story from back to front, etc.
  • Create your own rules. Make up new rules for familiar or new games - the sillier, the better!
  • Open-ended play. Play with toys and objects that are multi-purpose and open-ended. Blocks, loose parts, sensory materials, costumes, and recycled materials all fit the bill!

Written by Colleen Russo Johnson
Co-Founder and Chief Scientist @ OK Play


  1. Buttelmann, F., & Karbach, J. (2017). Development and Plasticity of Cognitive Flexibility in Early and Middle Childhood. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.
  2. Doebel, S., & Zelazo, P. D. (2015). A meta-analysis of the Dimensional Change Card Sort: Implications for developmental theories and the measurement of executive function in children. Developmental Review, 38, 241–268.
  3. Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135–168.
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