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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.