Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Problem Solving Deficit Disorder

Diane Levin coined the term Problem Solving Deficit Disorder and I would not be surprised to see it included in the next edition of the DSM.

Problem Solving Deficit Disorder speaks to the lack of skills that children have when they have spent most of their play time in imitative or instructed play rather than real play.  The child, instead of problem solving and learning her own way of doing things, through play, has spent months to years imitating a pre-created story line.

In imitative play, the child is taking a toy that comes with it's own story line, or it's own set of instructions, and is using it as directed.  The toy can be a Power Ranger, Spider Man, Luke Skywalker, Cinderella, Ariel, Tiana.  The child takes the toy, and knowing the storyline it represents, plays that story over and over.  He or she imitates what she's seen without great variation.  It is imitative because the way my daughter plays Ariel is nearly identical to how Mia plays it, and how every little girl in our neighborhood plays Ariel.  The way a little boy plays Spider Man is not greatly different from how his cousin, friend and neighbor will play Spider Man.  It is the outside going into the child, the child is receiving input rather than creating output. Through imitation, the child is internalizing the story and it's message.

In real play, the child is taking what exists in her mind, and putting it into her world in a concrete way.  She is taking the things she notices and thinks about, and manifesting them in a physical way.  This is why, especially early on, kids can play with pots and pans, rocks, blocks, and sock puppets.  The materials need not be complicated, there doesn't even necessarily need to be materials, because the ideas are what count.  In real play, the kind that builds a child up, the ideas are the most sophisticated ingredient, and the final product.  It is the mind and personal creativity of the child coming out, the child imprinting the world with her way of seeing it.

Toys and materials that promote real play are open ended, non-affiliated: wooden blocks, bubbles, paint, play doh.  The way my daughter plays with paint will be different than how Mia paints, and Mia's painting will be different than every other little girl in our neighborhood.  They way your son uses play-doh will be different than how his cousin uses it, and different still from how his friends use it.
Here are some teachers examples, as reported to Levin, of how they've seen PSDD manifest in their classrooms:

Kindergarten teacher: Daily, groups of girls argue about who will get to go to the sand table and stand next to the cutest boy.

First Grade teacher: Daily fights among boys as they play, Good Guy vs. Bad Guy, always, always, resulting in someone crying, someone getting hurt.

Kindergarten teacher: Kids, given 15 minutes of free play, roaming around the play area, unsure what to do, not engaging in anything, saying, "There's nothing to do."

First Grade: Boys not knowing how to play without using characters from TV shows and movies, and always these shows have the Good Guy vs. Bad Guy theme, and always they're beating the tar out of the Bad Guys, in the name of justice.

Another teacher that Levin interviewed told how in her classroom, she set a large mass of play-doh on a table, and kids walked around it, not touching it, until one child finally poked it and asked, "What does it do?"

When kids have spent play time from age 1-5 imitating companies stories, they have not used that time to discover a problem and then work at solving that problem.  Instead of developing and sharpening problem solving skills, instead of building a foundation to support conflict resolution, they've sharpened their skills of imitating, and will rely heavily on others to provide both entertainment, and solutions to problems.


  1. Recently I was given some advice about side-stepping/preventing my son (3.5 years) from having a melt down when things aren't exactly perfect - get him to look for solutions to his problem. Ask him outright, ie: "huh. That looks frustrating as all heck. How can you solve this problem?".

    The kid LOVES this. He loves being in charge of the solution and is so pleased to solve the problem on his own. So pleased that he usually will immediately tell his Dad just how clever he is when Dad walks in the door.

    Fantastic site! I love getting the information you're presenting here!

  2. (oh, and the point of my comment was to say that encourage our kids to problem solve actually makes them happy...).

  3. Amberism--I like that approach. It's validates the child, and at the same time, lets them develop their own expertise.