Teachers and parents are always on the lookout for inexpensive, fun ways to engage kids while building important physical and mental skills. For a great mental workout, look no further than puzzles.
Puzzles are a great way to stay sharp at any age. There’s an endless variety and infinite degrees of difficulty — from toddler-accessible jigsaw puzzles to logic problems that have been stumping the world’s smartest people for decades.
Board games (like Chess) and video games (like the Portal series) also provide great platforms for puzzles. Puzzles accomplish the double duty of being a really fun way to pass time, while giving the brain a serious workout.
Puzzles are a great way to give young children a leg up in life. When they’re very young, their brains are developing at an incredible rate, so any amount of puzzle time at this stage is going to work wonders on their mental development. Playing with puzzles benefits preschoolers (and kids of all ages) by sharpening the following essential skills:
1. Problem Solving
By definition, puzzles are problems that require solutions. Whether working on a classic jigsaw puzzle or a word problem, a person needs to come up with a series of steps — a strategy — that solves the problem.
Problem-solving skills translate well into many different career streams, but especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. In jobs like engineering or computer programming, problem-solving is usually the main focus. A computer programmer needs to write code, i.e. a series of steps, to execute a command, which is akin to solving a puzzle. A great example of this is Chess,
2. Spatial Reasoning
Putting together physical puzzles (like the jigsaw variety) draws heavily on spatial reasoning skills. There are endless geometry-based games available online suitable for all ages and skill levels. Games like this that rely on sharp spatial reasoning skills are a major group in the puzzle family. Spatial reasoning skills benefit people enormously in STEM fields, particularly engineering and technology. Architects and designers also use spatial reasoning skills as their main stock in trade.
3. Cognitive Skills
The kind of step-by-step reasoning required to solve a puzzle is also required to solve math and physics problems. Away from the STEM fields, it’s also required to phrase a logical argument or draw a conclusion. Playing with puzzles is a fabulous mental workout that uses a number of cognitive skills, including logic, pattern awareness, and spatial reasoning. For a famously hard example, try Einstein's Puzzle.
4. Hand/Eye Co-ordination
Physical puzzles require a lot of unity between the hand (which is manipulating the pieces and trying to find the right configuration) and the eye, which attempts to detect the correct position relative to the puzzle itself.
Hand/eye co-ordination is vital for sports, but also for career skills like drawing, design, or drafting.
The classic game Labyrinth is great motor skill training.
5. Fine Motor Skills
Lots of puzzles require precision in order to reach the solution. Jigsaw puzzles with tiny pieces are just one example. It goes without saying that a ton of careers require top-notch fine motor skills, from brain surgery to working with high-tech electronics. Many of the skilled trades, which rake in big cash, also require fine motor skills. The game Operation is a classic test of these, but any type of physical puzzle will help improve fine motor skills.
So where’s a good place to find puzzles?
You can find puzzles online in any number of places. ProProfs has a huge selection of games and puzzles — and it’s all free! Cool Math 4 Kids also has a ton of puzzles, mostly of the logic, numerical, and geometric varieties. Offline, most toy stores will also have dozens, or even hundreds of options to suit any age or skill level.
For people a little older, most newspapers feature the brain-boosting logic game Sudoku. And few puzzles are more famous than the Sunday crossword in the New York Times. For the truly savvy out there, here’s a list of the world’s hardest puzzles. And here’s another one.
Photo credit: Brian Aydemir
The best puzzles for improving spatial reasoning skills, and many of the other skills we mentioned, are ones in which the participant is empowered to determine a solution. They should be age-appropriate so that finding a solution is a reasonable goal without parental help.
Exposure to a wide variety of them throughout childhood and beyond is one of the best things for ensuring a lifetime of keen, sharp smarts. The universe of puzzles is seemingly infinite.
Do you have any recommendations of ones your kids love? Feel free to share — we’re always looking for more!
Zorbit's Math Adventure is a fun and engaging online math game, currently available for kindergarten and grade 1 teachers and students. This adaptive, game-based learning program will improve your student's experiences with math, increase their level of understanding and performance, and will allow you to view your entire class's game performance from a high-level overview.