Tag Archive for problem solving

Use Games and Puzzles to teach children Problem Solving: Missionaries and Cannibals

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.

Click here for a solution and to play the game.

Fun and Games with Computational Thinking: Children Thinking Logically

What is Computational Thinking?

Our brain works in a similar way to a computer storing data, by keeping information in patterns which are recovered when needed. Computers store data in 1s and 0s while brains store information in patterns and sequences.

A foundation stone in ‘computational thinking’ is thinking logically.  Logical thinking means inferring new information from that which you have already, with no guessing: each step must be rationally worked out.    Searching, sequencing, planning, and scheduling are all facets of computational thinking that underpin our daily lives.  These logical skills support many other fields – both for children in tasks like planning the route to school, organizing a game, sequencing the revision planner and for adults in daily lives and in other disciplines like research, engineering, project management

Speaking at Carnegie Mellon Qatar’s Computer Science Distinguished Lecture Series recently, Dr. Jeannette M. Wing, the Head of Carnegie Mellon University’s Computer Science Department said “Computational thinking helps us figure out how to solve problems through reduction, embedding, transformation, decomposition or simulation.” She added “Teaching computational thinking can not only inspire future generations to enter the field of computer science because of its intellectual adventure, but will benefit people in all fields,” Dr Wing went on to say “we should be taking advantage of the tech-savvy generation in order to teach more about computer science. We should try to teach the younger generation the reasons behind new technology.”

So, how can we equip our kids to be creators, not just consumers?

How can we foster computational thinking?

Research shows that games help develop computational thinking abilities in children and logical thinking is challenging and fun. Most newspapers have logical thinking puzzle like Sudoku and Kakuro are great examples of logical thinking exercises. Taking the information given in a few squares of your 9×9 grid, you must deduce the values in all the other cells to solve the puzzle.  A single logical thinking mistake will prevent a solution, but each new cell value can be logically deducted: other possible answers will be excluded by your logic.

Introduce your children to fun puzzles like Sudoku and Kakuro.  Try online thinking games too – www.Robozzle.com is an excellent place to find logic puzzles suitable from about 10 years upwards, with a competitive element if your children are interested in the additional challenge.  These puzzles teach us all to think logically and computationally, increasingly naturally and this skill will quickly translate into real-world problem solving.

Interestingly some computer games, eg Runescape, can also foster this kind of logical thinking with the quests and puzzles which encourage users to break a challenge down into steps, then sequence these steps into a plan, execute the plan, then evaluate to see how effective their planning had been.

Dr. David Anderegg spoke at TEDx Brussels 2010, explaining that we need more creative people who can discover smart long-term solutions to our complicated problems. The future is bright for children who master logic and computational thinking – kids who understand why and how systems work, rather than just accepting that they do.