Developing Problem Solving Skills
Thinking logically and independently is a skill that will set kids up for life: these are the skills that cause them to ask ‘Why’, to think critically, to question received wisdom and find solutions to problems for themselves. Encouraging children out of passively receiving information into a more independent space allows them to unleash their creativity too.
Interestingly, once they have encountered a problem in one context, kids are very able to transfer their solution to different scenarios. You will find classic problems, like the Missionaries and Cannibals below, presented in a range of diffferent guises involving foxes and chickens, bridges and horses etc.
Try puzzles like this one with your kids – get them to try out their ideas using the game in the link below:
Missionaries and Cannibals
In this classic river-crossing problem, three missionaries and three cannibals must cross a river in a boat which can carry two people, but on both banks missionaries cannot be outnumbered by cannibals (if they were, the cannibals would eat them.) The boat cannot cross the river without people on board and all missionaries and cannibals can row. How can you get all six across the river and how many trips will it take?
In its original state this problem is trivial, however the problem can be elaborated, for example one variation states that three missionaries with a single cannibal can convert him into a missionary; another shows that when you try to get four missionaries and cannibals across the problem becomes unsolvable.
This problem is a ‘toy problem’, of no intrinsic value but useful to illustrate a facet of a larger problem or explain a problem solving technique. Saul Amarel used it as an example of problem representation in artificial intelligence. It is also commonly used to demonstrate searching in AI including classic search algorithms such as breadth-first and depth-first.