How jigsaw puzzles can help a child’s development

For an engineer, architect, artist or a designer, the ability to transform shapes mentally is crucial in their daily performance. But, to develop advanced skill in transforming shapes, they need to start training very early. According to a study by the researchers from the University of Chicago, playing puzzles is an ideal way of training for such skills, and the children should start as early as when they are two years old.

Puzzles and spatial skills
The researchers worked with 53 kids aged from two to four, and their parents, and observed them playing with puzzles as they would in their normal home environment. They found that regular playing with puzzles can predict the advanced spatial skills in children when they are 54 months old.

When tested later, at the age of 5, the children who regularly played with puzzles – at least twice a week – performed much better when performing tasks that involved translating and rotating shapes.
Both boys and girls who played puzzles performed better at spatial tests than children that did not, but the results for boys were better. Boys also engaged in playing more complicated and complex puzzles. Scientists suspect that the reason for the difference between boys and girls was more in the parents’ input than the real spatial skill difference between the genders. Parents of boys offered more spatial language during playing puzzles than parents of girls.

Interestingly, parents from higher income group played puzzles more often and more commonly than parents from other income groups, and were more likely to buy puzzles to their children instead of other, more common and currently popular toys.

The research findings confirm the previously held belief that playing puzzles supports the development of mental skills necessary for performing well in disciplines such as technology, maths and engineering.

Children love doing jigsaws
Children love doing jigsaws

Fine motor skills development
Spatial transformation skills are just some of many skills kids can develop while playing puzzles. Playing with large puzzles can help babies develop gross motor skills, and for older skills, manipulating small puzzles pieces help the development of fine motor skills. Fine motor skills are linked to the hand-eye coordination. Children who develop fine motor skills early in life have easier time learning to draw and write or learn to play an instrument.
If children show difficulties in hand-eye coordination while playing puzzles, it is one of the early signs of some developmental problem and it means that parents should consult a professional. Early detection of a problem might increase a chance of finding a solution.

Problem solving and intelligence
Playing puzzles is an ideal way for children to lean an important skill of problem solving. Scientists consider that problem solving is a major aspect of intelligence. Playing puzzles, with or without a photo of the completed puzzle, forces children to look for the solution to the problem – finding the right piece for the space. They use their experience from previous games, but with different picture, in a different situation. The more games of puzzles they play, the easier task of finding the right puzzle piece becomes. They learn that they need to turn the piece around to find the right fit, need to look at the colors and patterns that match, and especially to create a frame with the edge pieces. These are not easy tasks for small children, but the practice boosts up the speed with which they learn in an amazing way. By trying different pieces for a certain space, children learn to strategize, separating similar pieces into groups for later use, giving their brains an additional exercise.

Children often have problem focusing and have short attention span. But, once they get engaged in a puzzle, they are able to spend an unusual amount of time playing without losing interest, in order to complete the picture. Completed puzzle also offers them a sense of satisfaction, boosting their self-esteem.
Playing puzzles with a sibling encourages the spirit of competition, adding to the need to persevere in order to complete the task as fast as possible.

Boosting memory
As children grow up, they are drawn to more and more complicated puzzles. Most of them require a photo of the completed puzzle to be played. Children match each piece they are trying to place to the place they see in the photo, memorizing the right placement. In addition, if the piece does not fit, they put it aside, remembering the piece later when they find the proper space for it.

Geography, history and biology
By choosing the right puzzle, parents can help children with a difficult school subject and turn it into fun. If geography is posing problems, a puzzle with a map of the world might trigger an interest that the teacher failed to create. Puzzles with historical events, such as battles, can help children understand the importance of learning history in order to understand the present. A puzzle with a photo of a skeleton or human body can be a wonderful introduction to the basic biology of human organs. Considering the huge variety of puzzles available, any parent can find the right puzzle to fit with the particular subject their kid needs a little boost with.

Social skills
While puzzles can be played alone, they are much more fun when played in a group, or at least with one partner. Playing together with others helps children to learn to cooperate, take turns, wait and follow rules. There is no cheating in puzzles, there is only one way of doing things, but the rules of fair play still apply. Children learn to cooperate by dividing the task and separating pieces by color or pattern, for example. If the number of players is bigger, children can play in teams, learning about alliances and team building. Like all the best toys, puzzles teach children about important society rules through fun and play.

Language skills
Small children usually play with parents, who provide instructions and assistance by explaining different parts of puzzles, using words, phrases and terms that might be new to the children. Each new puzzle offers opportunities to the parents to increase the vocabulary of their children.

Pure play
Besides boosting cognitive development, jigsaw puzzles are pure fun, providing hours of play and enjoyment. It is particularly important that children play with parents and grandparents, who are slowly losing their place in children’s education and development, being replaced by TV and computers. There is no replacement for human relationship and interaction. Children and parents who play together also solve other problems together, support each other and trust each other. It is not a stretch to say that, by playing puzzles together, parents develop a window into their children’s mind. That window might allow them to spot the problem when it occurs and offer help and support before the problem becomes more difficult.

Photo credit: fitting the pieces together via photopin (license)

Doing puzzles can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s

Adults who do regular brain activities such as jigsaws puzzles could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. It could even cut the chances of developing the disease by a third, according to research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study looked at the leisure time of subjects during early adulthood, age 20 to 39, and middle adulthood, age 40 to 60.

Activities were classed into:

  • Passive, such as watching television, talking on the phone or listening to music.
  • Intellectual, such as reading, jigsaw or crossword puzzles, playing musical instruments, chess or other board games, knitting or woodwork.
  • Physical, such as baseball, football or other sports, bike riding, swimming, walking or skating.
Jigsaws are a great activity for senior citizens
Jigsaws are a great activity for senior citizens

The Alzheimer’s patients were less active in all these activities except for television watching, notes neurologist Dr. Robert P. Friedland, first author of this latest research. Worryingly, Friedland found that television watching may even be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

Previous studies have drawn similar conclusions (most notably the MacArthur Study). They also reported that people who take part in intellectual activities have a better quality of life and a longer life expectancy.

But why do brain activities such as assembling a jigsaw puzzles have such a seemingly powerful effect?

Like any other organ, the brain needs regular exercise. Successfully piecing a puzzle together, even just placing one piece in the right place, encourages the production of dopamine, a chemical that improves learning and memory. Doing a puzzle, for example, also works both sides of the brain at the same time (the left and right hemispheres). This creates actual “connections” between the left and right sides, as well as connections between individual brain cells. It’s thought that healthier brain cells are better able to control or slow the Alzheimer’s process. Unfortunately there is no evidence that these activities will actually alter the disease.

This latest research from Friedman shows further evidence that simple brain activities have many health benefits and can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. Anything we can do to keep our brains active, such as doing jigsaw puzzles, must therefore make sense.

Photo credit: Serious about jigsaw puzzles via photopin (license)

Discovering Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles

I am on a trip of a lifetime to the noisy Big Apple, and am shocked at the sheer scale of New York city, it is indeed a place which never sleeps. No wonder some have named this vibrant destination twice.

We do the usual department stores including world-famous Macey’s. We’re keen to find a place where my daughter would like to go too. And that’s the 150 year old toy store Schwarz on 5th Avenue – a firm favourite with the young of age and heart. Two real life toy soldiers greet us and open the large glass doors for us.

It is totally mesmerising; we head up the escalator to escape into another world. A giant dinosaur roars as we reach the top. I glimpse on the far wall smiling children in photographs and I catch the words Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles. Whist waiting for my daughter to finish looking at some Cinderella dresses I tap into my smart phone “Ravensburger”. I am amazed at what I discover. I knew Ravensburger had been around for a while but their beginnings took me by surprise.

Ravensburger was founded in 1883 by Ottor Robery Maier in a town called Upper Swabia, Southern Germany. He began by publishing not jigsaws but instructions for craftsmen and architects. A year later he published his first board game which he names “Journey around the World”. Quite why he moved from instructions to board games it remains unclear.

But then the link becomes clearer. By 1900, his company’s product lines included not only art instruction manuals but also books and board games. The famous Ravensburger blue triangle trade mark was registered in 1900 and twelve years later this ever increasing business began exporting to Europe and Russia.

It is an extraordinary success story: by the First World War, Ravensburger had around 800 products. Sadly, Ravensburger’s publishing house was damaged during the Second World War but they still managed to carry on producing children’s games and books which specialised in art books, architecture, and other hobbies. Amazingly Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles only started to be produced from the 1960s.

Ravensburger logo
Ravensburger logo

Today Ravensburger is one of the leading manufacturers of jigsaw puzzles – its range of Puzzleballs are always particularly popular. It’s incredible to think that Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles have brought such enjoyment to young and old over those years.

A small hand pulls me away from my smart phone and I found myself in the queue buying yet another Cinderella dress.

A short history of jigsaw puzzles

A cold wet miserable day and I’m standing in my local library, sheltering from the rain. I casually browse the bookshelves, flicking through the autobiographies. Something catches my eye.

Cars splash past but it’s the sign above the community noticeboard I spot. It directs visitors to climb the stone steps to the floor above to the museum. There’s another flyer pinned to the board advertising the latest exhibition – Henry VIII.

I’m intrigued and duly climb the steps. There are pictures on the walls of how the local town of Weybridge, Surrey used to look like in the 1920s through to the 1960s. Although only small, Elmbridge museum has a wide collection of historical memorabilia. There’s much to celebrate that’s local in this part of the world. Henry VIII had one of his (as I was later to find out) many palaces at Oatlands. This was also home to the first racing car circuit at Brooklands, the same area where Concorde was designed and parts built.

But it’s the corner of the room that grabs my attention. It’s of a Victorian School Room set. There’s a cane, a blackboard and dusty text books. Just like I had seen downstairs in the library there’s a jigsaw – this one is of a world map. I begin chatting to the museum curator and we talk about jigsaw puzzles. A search on the internet computer,tucked by the main enquiry desk, reveals that jigsaws were designed to help British children learn about geography. A London engraver and mapmaker called John Spilsbury mounted a sheet of hardwood around in 1760. What a great idea and a fun way to learn about the world around and so jigsaw puzzles began to grown in popularity, especially as an educational tool.

I learn that by 1880 different tooling was coming into use with the introduction of a fretsaw, not what we would know as a true jigsaw. Plywood was to come into use towards the end of the century. I found it fascinating to discover that illustrations were glued or painted to the front side of the wood. Jigsaw makers would make pencil tracings to the back of each jigsaw puzzle. This, however, all seems like a long way removed from when my grandmother helped us to do our own Christmas jigsaw, for fun.

Another revolution came in the 20th century for jigsaws – cardboard jigsaw puzzles. They were still mainly for children and the puzzles were die-cut. The technique of cutting jigsaw puzzles this way – imagine a giant cookie cutter – continues today.

Tim Mitchell