Developing Creative Problem-Solving Skills through Play

My father’s life dream was becoming an aerospace engineer. He was a brilliant man.

Dreams work best when combined with confidence and action. Unfortunately, my dad lacked confidence in his own math skills. So when he had the opportunity of a getting a college degree on the GI bill after returning from WWII, he didn’t take it. For the remainder of his life – his career options were limited.

To protect my sister and I from a similar downfall, my mother insisted we take math seriously. So, when my sister kept getting a different substitute math teacher, Mom, a woman with confidence and action decided to sell our house and move to a different school district. That’s how important this was to her.

I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s before STEM–science, technology, engineering, math– was a buzzword, before most teachers or high school counselors had a clue what engineers did and before most girls would have even considered engineering as a career path. Teaching and nursing were the primary fields appropriate for a woman.

I defied all these norms, won an award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and entered Purdue as an engineering major. Knowing of the dashed dreams of my dad and the determination of my mother, I became an engineer. 

That decision changed my life – and I never regretted it.

Even with the focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields in schools, after-school projects, and organizations like Girl Scouts,

  • Many girls don’t even consider STEM as an educational option.
  • Fewer than 25% of engineering students are women, yet they make up over half of all college students.

Whether you have interest in engineering, science, technology, or math – there’s several reasons young girls and women either don’t consider these career paths or quit early in their educational pursuits.

Let’s look at why this happens:

1. Girls and women lack confidence in their math skills. 

  • New research shows women are 1.5 times more likely to change majors after their first college calculus course than their male classmates

2. Women will change majors if their grades are less than perfect. 

  • Research shows women strive for perfectionism more than men and have higher levels of stress because of this. I’m a perfect example of this. When I got my first D ever as a sophomore, I nearly changed majors. One of my male engineering student friends shrugged off several D’s, going on to become a successful engineer.

3. In general terms – What do boys and men say when they fail?

  • Wow…. That was hard, better luck next time.

4. What do Girls and Women say when they fail? 

  • I’m not good enough.
  • We personalize failure.  

How learning problem-solving skills can change your life

I’ve talked a lot about STEM – but the truth is everyone’s days are filled with problem-solving – small challenges and huge ones. You’ve solved 100’s of problems – right? And you’ve likely experienced some that feel too overwhelming and maybe you even decided to give up.

The one factor that makes us stumble, withdraw, and quit is the “fear of failing.” As I stated before, the fear of failing is a powerful and overwhelming barrier to learning problem-solving skills because many of us equate “failing” with “being a failure.”


I’m going to share 3 super-powered skills and attitudes to turn that feeling of failure into becoming your full fantastic problem-solving self.

The Power of Small Wins

Think about a time when your teacher gave you a huge science project assignment or your mom insisted you clean up your very messy room. With either of these examples – did you wait until the last minute to accomplish the task?  Maybe you didn’t know where to start, or it seemed an impossible task to complete. This is called perpetual procrastination. You spent so much time spinning your wheels you may have given up or just got by.

Problem solving wizards – use the Power of Small Wins.

    • Start small
    • Break down the big task into smaller simpler tasks. 
    • Do the small tasks over a couple of days or take breaks.
    • This way you’ll make progress towards your goal but in manageable chunks.
    • You’ll celebrate the small wins
    • And eventually – before you know it – you’ll accomplish the big thing you set out to complete.

I grew up with sewing as one of my many hobbies. Then and now, I apply the Power of Small Wins while sewing. A project like a queen-size quilt is huge. But instead of focusing on the entire quilt, I enjoy working on one section or block at a time. It’s more fun this way. 

You know the cool thing about solving problems this way? It builds self-confidence and resilience. You’ll become more capable of tackling bigger challenges because you build on your successes. You know you can learn, figure things out. It’s a game-changer, especially when you take the time to recognize and celebrate your small wins – incremental progress.

Now that you are gaining more success with small wins – let me offer you The Power of Choice.

If the Fear of Failing is a barrier to truly learning problem-solving skills then let’s adopt a revolutionary attitude shift: What if instead of fearing failure – we take the attitude of “Wrong is Wonderful.” Yes, you heard me correctly. Making a mistake is your fastest way to learn. Here’s why:

When you make a mistake – you get feedback. That didn’t work. Then you ask – why? Then you make a brand-new choice how to approach that problem and be successful. Mistakes gives you valuable information about what the solution isn’t and what it might be. That makes it easier to explore new options that may yield amazing breakthroughs because your focus is on learning efficiently, not being perfect. 

A perfect example is playing the game hot and cold game: you know, where somebody picks an object in the room, and you’re given feedback … warm or hot … when you’re getting close, cold or freezing when you’re not. 

And finally – my favorite skill to optimize your problem-solving skills – The Power of Play

Think about when you play. You joyfully explore, create, and invent. You tap into your imagination and let your worries fade away. Play is fun.

I love to play, to create, to design. My hobbies – my creative play – are what gave me the confidence to stay in engineering, overcoming a D in physics, later going on to complete a Ph.D. The play I did while working on my Ph.D. fueled my creativity and problem-solving on my dissertation. I took time to quilt in the evenings, designing a monarch butterfly quilt with a 36-inch wingspan, inspired from raising monarch butterflies and watching them emerge from their chrysalises, expand their wings by 300% in 5 minutes, and harden to flight-ready status in 1 to 3 hours. My hobbies enabled me to design a prototype that’s already saving baby sea turtle lives from misorientations due to artificial lights on Hilton Head Island in 2021.

So you can see – play can lead you to doing great things. Play taps into a dynamic, creative, and inventive part of your brain. Play gives your logical brain a rest. You’ll be re-energized to find a solution, build confidence and resilience.

Having fun is energizing, encourages creativity and creates motivation. Connect an attitude of play to your problem and you’ll discover your challenges are easier to solve and you’ll shrug off failures on your way to better learning.

The confidence I built solving problems over the years – by using the power of small wins, the power of choice and the power of play – gave me the confidence to become an engineer, write children’s books, to share my story with others, to inspire kids to become problem-solvers and reach for their dreams.

If you only take one thing away from this talk, remember the power of play. Take 15 minutes a day to do something that brings you joy, just for pure pleasure. When you take the time to play and connect with your inner joy, you’ll discover the courage to overcome challenges, the confidence to step outside your comfort zone, build a bridge toward your big goals, and become the person you are meant to be.


Marsha Tufft, aka MK Tufft

Engineer, Author, Speaker

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