Lateral Thinking: What Is It and How to Exercise It in Children?

If you want to preserve and enhance your children's creativity, spontaneity, and ingenuity, teach them to work on lateral thinking.
Lateral Thinking: What Is It and How to Exercise It in Children?
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 29 June, 2023

What we refer to as thinking includes a number of different cognitive functions. From planning and analyzing to generating ideas and making decisions, there are many tasks that the mind sets in motion on a daily basis. As children grow and their brains mature, they advance and refine these processes. However, there’s one that isn’t always properly addressed: Lateral thinking.

Before telling you what it is, you should know that it’s a fundamental tool, not only in childhood but throughout life. It allows learning in a more enjoyable and meaningful way, finding solutions to different problems and even improving social relationships. Every parent wants their child to enjoy these benefits, but for this, it’s important to teach them to use lateral thinking.

What is lateral thinking?

This concept was proposed by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1969 and is understood as opposed to vertical thinking. This, which is the type of thinking we all know and use the most, is logical and linear. It starts from a series of previous knowledge, follows a sequence, and arrives at a unique solution. This is how we’re taught to think in traditional schools and how we’ve learned to think from our own parents.

In contrast, lateral thinking is creative, chaotic, and spontaneous. It’s open to different perspectives and multiple solutions, so it’s synonymous with innovation. It’s what we call thinking outside the boxand is a very childlike way of thinking. They dare to explore, experiment, and discover all the alternatives. However, as they grow up, it’s common for us to lead them down the path of vertical thinking.

Of course, these processes are necessary and logical thinking is undeniably useful in everyday life. In fact, the human mind is designed to rely on what it already knows to make decisions and reach quick conclusions. This is what we know as thinking heuristics or mental shortcuts, which are of great benefit to us. However, it’s important to balance this convergence with more divergent thinking.

A child using vertical thinking in school.
In schools, children are given instructions and information that they must then remember and reproduce. In contrast, lateral thinking appeals to spontaneity and creativity.

How to stimulate lateral thinking in children?

As we said, children tend to be creative and spontaneous, although there are individual differences. However, to exercise lateral thinking, we have to encourage them to apply deliberate creativity; that’s to say, to know how to resort to it voluntarily when solving a problem. For this, we can apply several guidelines.

Give the child an active role in their learning

True meaningful learning doesn’t occur when the child passively receives information from an adult, but when they make it their own; and this can be achieved in many ways. Allowing young children to experiment, explore, interact with materials, and test their own hypotheses are excellent ways to contribute to their lateral thinking.

Be less directive

Adults often direct children all the time, telling them how things are, how they should behave, and what steps to follow at any given moment. This encourages obedience, routine, and logical thinking, but stifles creativity and spontaneity. Therefore, it’s positive to give children more autonomy and encourage them to reflect and come to their own answers and conclusions.

For example, instead of giving guidelines, we can ask: How do you think we could do this, how can we solve this problem, or what ideas can you think of to achieve this goal?

Teach useful dynamics and strategies

There are certain dynamics that can be very useful for children when using lateral thinking. These can be practiced at home or at school initially, but over time, they’ll become part of the child’s own resources. That way, they’ll assimilate them and will know how to use them when needed.

One of the most effective is brainstorming. This is especially effective when children are stuck when it comes to solving a problem or making a decision. Instead of going round and round over the same thoughts, the idea is to come up with all the solutions that come to mind, no matter how far-fetched or fanciful.

Another of the most useful and fun techniques is known as the “6 thinking hats”. You can learn more about it in this article.

Children practiving linear thought.
The freedom to think without logical restrictions can lead to good ideas, some of which can be applied to solve problems.

Practice exercises and games

Finally, we can support children’s lateral thinking by proposing riddles, guessing games, and other games that help to awaken their ingenuity and originality. You can find multiple options on the Internet, as well as in children’s activity books. But you can also create your own ideas: Just narrate a situation in which there are several options and ask your child to list as many as they can think of.

For example, what can a box of matches be used for? Answers can range from using it as a container to plant a lentil, using it as a jewelry box for earrings and rings, or using it as a table in a doll house.

Lateral thinking is a lifelong tool

Ultimately, it’s about helping children understand that there’s not always a single valid solution. So, there’s no reason to stick with the first option that comes to mind. It’s about encouraging them to be original in their thinking, develop their ingenuity, and think and propose for themselves beyond what they already know or have been told.

The ability to use lateral thinking will be very useful in their school years and in their personal relationships because it’ll make them more empathetic and tolerant, as they’ll be able to see different perspectives. But it’s also a highly valued and demanded resource in the professional world, so it’ll be very useful in the future.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.