Justin, a six year old boy is trying to assemble a twenty five piece puzzle portraying kids playing in a playground. Justin finds it hard to start the puzzle. He is overwhelmed by the number of pieces and does not know where to begin. He picks up a random piece and tries to connect it to another piece, but with no success. He uses a trial and error approach, randomly trying different pieces. After a minute he finds a piece that matches the one he was holding, but how can he go from there? He is getting quite frustrated and after a few minutes of repetitive trial and error, he abandons the puzzle, saying it is too hard.
Thomas, another six year old, is trying to assemble the same puzzle. He scans all the pieces and decides to start from the image of the boy with the red shirt. He finds a few pieces that belong to the boy, sets them aside and starts putting them together. Then he continues to another image in the puzzle, one which is located next to the boy. Using the same strategy he completes the puzzle in less than 10 minutes, feeling achievement and success.
Assembly of a puzzle requires integration of both the right and left sides of the brain. The right hemisphere “sees” the global picture and the left one “sees” the details. This task also requires the use of many executive functions, which are high-level cognitive processes necessary for planning and directing activities. Besides the sensory-motor aspects of manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination and bilateral hand use, this activity can benefit kids in many levels:
Visual-spatial perception: The child is required to scan the pieces, distinguish between different shapes, images and colors and notice similarities and differences. He is required to identify the details (visual discrimination) at the same time he acknowledges the whole image. Spatial awareness is also needed.
Sustained attention: When the puzzle is just the right challenge and non- frustrating, the child is able to maintain his attention to complete the whole activity.
Response inhibition: Child can learn how to reduce impulse behavior by thinking before he acts. Thus, trial and error can be reduced to a minimum.
Planning and organization: Child can learn how to plan this activity in order to assemble the puzzle in a time and effort efficient manner. For example, one can decide if wants to start from the edges, complete the frame and then piece together the inside, or whether to go according to the image elements within the puzzle.
Categorization: Sorting the pieces according to color or images, or sorting into piles according to pieces with edge and no edge.
Working memory: Child has to remember to use a piece that he set aside for later use.
Problem solving: During the task, the child is required to constantly make logical decisions regarding the pieces.
Self-talk: While the child has to solve problems during this task, using internalized speech helps him plan his steps and regulate his behavior.
Feelings of success and mastery: When the difficulty level of the puzzle is just right, the child experiences those positive feelings such that they motivate him to continue doing puzzles with a higher level of difficulty.
Calming and relaxing: When the level of the puzzle is just right, this activity can have a calming effect on the child, as the brain focuses on only a single activity and other thoughts are pushed aside.
Many researchers think of a jigsaw puzzle (not the ones you play electronically on a PC or tablet) as the best brain building exercise to develop reading, math and logic skills.
When parents take the time to play with their child, I highly recommend this activity. Start putting together a puzzle of four large pieces when the child is three or four years old and gradually increase the size of the puzzle.
At the beginning, choose a puzzle that does not have visual clutter. That means that the puzzle does not include too many small visual details.
Ask the child where he wants to start (a certain image or the puzzle edge) and help him sort the pieces by conducting an efficient scanning of the pieces in order.
Try to reduce impulsivity by having him look at the picture on the box and use a plan. Have your child talk through his plan. Commend him for working in an organized manner.
In the completion of the puzzle, commend the child's working style, appreciate his patience and his persistence in achieving the goal and encourage doing it again, but this time without your assistance.
Cue him by using questions that promote planning and organization such as: “What image are you starting with?” “How can you find all the pieces of this image?” “What piece/s are you going to search for now?”
RECOMMENDED READING : Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare.
RECOMMENDED GAMES : Camelot Jr. (Smart Games), Color Code, , Rush Hour and other Think Fun games, Master Mind, Guess Who, Checkers, Chess, Construction games such as Lego, blocks and parquetry which require building according to design and more...