Puzzles in education

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What are the benefits of puzzles in teaching children skills and concepts?

What benefit do they have with regards helping teach spatial skills, hand-eye coordination, math, language, social science and science concepts, as well as logic and thinking skills? What puzzles help what area? For example, can Crosswords help develop vocabulary, reasoning skills, spelling, and literacy skills? Can Mechanical puzzles help learn motor skills and hand-eye coordination as well as spatial concepts and how to problem solve? Can logic puzzles support the development of logical thinking skills, deductive and inductive reasoning, spatial concepts, motor coordination, and planning ahead? Can jigsaw puzzles help develop spatial concepts and problem-solving? Can Word puzzles help develop spelling and figure-ground perception i.e. objects or words hidden in a background of pictures or letters?

Teaching and Learning

All of us, whether children or adult, are lifelong learners. From birth, we respond, learn and assimilate everything around us through from stimuli including multi-learning e.g. our sense of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. How we grow and develop depends on many other factors including our environment, our ability to learn from our own mistakes, think and remember, how often we study and practice, the positive and negative experiences we face, the changes and challenges we encounter as well as our own and others actions, values and beliefs.

Mortimer Adler once quoted “The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as we continue to live.”

The use of mechanical puzzles in education has always been popular for creating an entertaining environment and reinforcing the goals of supporting independent thinking, logical reasoning, critical thinking, problem-solving and developing mathematical awareness. Recreational mechanical puzzles have led to a number of developments in mathematics such as topology and graph theory.

In 2008, Michalewicz Michalewicz produced a book known as Puzzle-based Learning: An introduction to critical thinking, mathematics, and problem-solving that highlighted the benefit of using puzzles in education. They stated, “…Besides being a lot of fun, a puzzle-based learning approach also does a remarkable job of convincing students that (a) science is useful and interesting, (b) the basic courses they take are relevant, (c) mathematics is not that scary (no need to hate it ), and (d) it is worthwhile to stay in school, get a degree, and move into the real world which is loaded with interesting problems (problems perceived as real-world puzzles).”

But how do we learn from puzzles?

Benjamin Bloom is perhaps ‘the’ most pre-­eminent educational psychology theorist of all time. Bloom theorised that all learning can be categorised into three domains. These domains are cognitive (thinking), affective (emotion/feeling), and psychomotor (doing or the physical/kinesthetics).

For decades, these categories of learning have been embedded by educators into all forms of holistic teaching and learning to help create a more well-rounded learning experiences that meet individual learning styles or modalities (e.g., visual, auditory, tactile, physical).

Mechanical puzzles according to experts are said to do a lot of good. As an experience, they require us to make use of different aspects related to our cognitive processes, test and utilise our kinaesthetic or tactile attributes and develop our emotional affective domains from feeling frustrated to the feeling of satisfaction and relief the moment a Eureka! is reached (Martin Gardner’s Aha!). All of which are required when learning.

Benefits derived from mechanical puzzles

So what are the benefits to be enjoyed when using and solving mechanical puzzles in education?

Social Skills: When puzzle solving with friends, we can all develop a range of skills including how to share and negotiate with others, how to communicate effectively and listen to others. Whether it is a simple math dice problem or a domino puzzle, any mechanical puzzle can support puzzle-solving strategies as well as develop leadership and team building skills.

Tangram is a classic puzzle consisting of 7 pieces.
Tangram is a classic puzzle consisting of 7 pieces.

Enhanced motor skills: Young children are required to learn for holding and grasping objects. The huge variety of mechanical puzzles now available can prove to be a wonderful way for developing and improving motor skills, eye-hand coordination and fine-motor dexterity as they hold, turn, think, fit and manipulate pieces. Put together puzzles such as the Stomachion, one of the world’s oldest puzzles with its 14 different geometric shapes can be used to learn about symmetry and transformations, and areas of the various pieces.

Improved cognitive skills: Puzzle can definitely improve cognitive skills, more particularly with reasoning and problem-solving skills. Puzzles can help in teaching shape and color recognition as well as get better understanding of the relationship of part to whole and also teach essential math concepts such as sorting, classifying, comparing, organising, categorising, sets, size, and spatial awareness relationships.

Improved eye-hand coordination: There are some mechanical puzzles that may need the child to have an object placed in a precise location to fit it in its proper place. It is termed to be a wonderful way for developing eye-hand coordination and fine motor ability, as they tend to master trying to fit pieces, where it is to go. Babies are likely, to begin with wooden peg puzzles using their tiny hands and be guided by their parents. Over a period of time, they would be able to match shapes and perform those puzzles without any assistance, then proceed to build bricks and then oversized floor puzzles and then more complex pieced puzzles. It is regarded to be a reflection of gradual development that is noticed in eye and hand coordination. Take, as an example, hand-held dexterity mazes such as the Lunatic Maze created by Marcus Allred that offer a brilliant diversion to tax the mind. Despite their sheer simplicity are incredibly challenging requiring lots of hand-eye coordination.

Handcrafted wooden dexterity mazes to tease the senses by Marcus Allred
Handcrafted wooden dexterity mazes to tease the senses by Marcus Allred.

Mental stimulation: Puzzles have always been a continuous mental stimulation source for children of every age. This is likely to be, even if they simply rework similar puzzle repeatedly. There is a need for them to think of the very best strategy which would help the pieces to be fit together, like doing edges first and then filling in the middle or just vice versa. Moreover, they are challenged from the first piece to last while trying to locate particular pieces and to match connecting parts so that it resembles the picture present on the box.

It is a fact that educational games and electronic toys that are presently sold in the market could compete rarely with a consistent challenge which is presented by a simple puzzle that can spur imagination and encourage creativity. Two categories of puzzles that provide a great deal of mental stimulation are that of sequential movement puzzles that require the maneuvering of puzzle parts, unlocking of parts and pieces and lots of steps to reach a goal (such as Chinese rings, sliding-piece puzzles and the Rubik’s Cube), and take-apart puzzles, especially those that are interlocking. There are now thousands of different interlocking puzzle designs in all manner of shapes and sizes, many often in the shape of polyhedrons, three-dimensional geometrical objects.

A geometric assembly puzzle by George Hart
Frabjous is a sculpture and geometric assembly puzzle designed by Mathematician George Hart.

Problem-solving and Reasoning skills: Puzzle solving does demand reasoning and problem skills. Children constantly are confronted with smaller issues, which are required to be solved by completing successfully the puzzle. For example, when few last missing pieces are concerned that are coloured similarly, the child is to determine as to which one would go in which spot. It is something that is done usually by the procedure of elimination, getting one piece in a hole until it gets fit somewhere. Over time, children can solve such smaller problems much quicker.

Creative interest: Most children are sparked towards creative activities through puzzles. When solving a jigsaw they will have a look at pictures present upon the box including that of the completed puzzle. There are many children who can latch onto a specific puzzle type such as the Rubik Cube and gain a great deal of enthusiasm for its solving. As well as developing the skills, puzzles can open doorway to improved creativity as well.

Teamwork and Communication: Puzzles are a great pastime, which the whole family can enjoy together. When sitting over a difficult puzzle, parents can encourage children to open up, to discuss their thoughts and reasonings whilst developing personal thinking and communication skills which they would otherwise be less likely to use in other situations. The reason is that their mind could be distracted and they could enjoy their activity and chit-chat casually.

Social Skills: Mechanical puzzles help develop personal independent confidence, raise self-esteem and lead an individual into trying new puzzles, other challenging activities and experiences.

Mechanical puzzles when selected carefully can really do a lot of help to children and help to develop their deduction and reasoning process of thinking, besides providing skills like spatial awareness, sorting and matching. Above all, mechanical puzzles can develop transferable skills for later life and offer a wonderful opportunity for social interaction and for language development.

Go out and get some wooden and metal mechanical puzzles. As well as their obvious valuable educational benefits, they are entertaining and great fun.

Happy puzzling.

Cover image © Marcus Allred


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