Fun with a Purpose
There is something universally appealing about puzzles, no matter what our age or particular passion: jigsaw puzzles, word searches, mazes, Sudoku, or any of the puzzle-type games we have stored on our phones. The best puzzles are challenging but not to the point of frustration. They draw on our intelligence and our cleverness, and require both persistence and little bit of luck. As a result, you feel like you’ve truly earned your success – which is satisfying indeed.
The same holds true for puzzles for children, with the added requirement that they be developmentally appropriate. Logic, vocabulary, skills, and even humor vary by age, and they all play a big part in helping the puzzler feel successful. Kids love the thrill of the challenge, and they love feeling smart, all the more so if they’ve had to work at it. At Highlights for Children, we’re best-known for our Hidden Pictures puzzles (which, our spies in the dentist offices tell us, adults love as much as children). In addition to being fun and tricky (Where IS that pencil?), they offer some very concrete cognitive benefits:
Figure ground perception is the formal term for distinguishing items from their backgrounds (made famous by the image of two profile faces forming a vase between them). When kids scan an illustration and look for objects in the negative spaces between images, they are sharpening this skill, which is an important pre-requisite for learning to identify letters and numbers.
Object Constancy refers to the ability to recognize the properties of an object, and to understand that even when it changes in form or appearance it is still the same object. Have you noticed how each of our artists draws a banana in a unique way? Yet savvy puzzlers are always able to recognize them.
Visual Discrimination is the ability to see and appreciate both the similarities and differences between objects. Again, this is an important skill in the development of proficiency in both reading and math.
But perhaps the most important benefit of puzzling is persistence: the ability – the willingness – to work through a problem, to try and try again, to stay motivated and engaged, even when things are difficult. That’s a skill that will help kids throughout their lives, no matter how many different types of bananas they encounter.
I’ve always thought that receiving a handwritten letter is like getting a hug in the mail.
I’m one of probably a handful of people who are truly excited—who even know—that April is National Card- and Letter-Writing Month. I’m in an even smaller club of people who accepted the “30 Letters in 30 Days” social media challenge. I’m writing notes like a fiend, and loving it.
The handwritten friendly letter—it’s a dying art form. That saddens me, because I’m amazed and gratified at all the wisdom and support that have been passed on to me via letters. Some of these letters came to me as a kid—from grandparents, a favorite uncle, and teachers. They seem more thoughtful, more intentional than the email correspondence of today. When I see my grandfather’s graceful cursive handwriting, I can almost hear his voice and the cadence of his speech. These letters are keepsakes, and rereading them still makes me feel good.
My love of letters started when I was young, when I’d blow my babysitting money in a local stationery store. I had several pen pals, and I was one who rarely balked at writing a thank-you card or a letter to Grandma. That may sound unusual, but, as editor in chief of Highlights magazine, I see my young self in many of our readers who write to the magazine with affection, curiosity, and enthusiasm. When we write them back—and we always do—they tell us they are surprised and delighted.
Even if writing letters isn’t something your child naturally gravitates toward, letter-writing—habitual or occasional—is a practice you’ll want to encourage your kids to develop. Why? For starters, letter-writing improves their communication skills. It gives kids practice expressing themselves in a clear manner.
Letter-writing also improves handwriting skills. This is increasingly important in an era when handwriting instruction is being cut from school curricula.
And here’s my favorite reason: Letter-writing offers kids a way to practice empathy. Is Uncle George having surgery? Is your friend who moved away feeling lonely? Did the neighbor’s dog die? These are all opportunities to teach your kids how to think about the feelings of others and write the kind of letter they’d like to receive in these circumstances.
Even writing to Santa Claus or the tooth fairy is good practice. A child can write a letter to his older self and tuck it away to be read down the road—or included in a family time capsule.
Make it easy. Keep stationery supplies handy—including stamps. The USPS this month released a new stamp—“From Me to You”—that has extra kid appeal. The stamp even comes on a sheet with stickers that can be used to decorate letters and envelopes. Keep art supplies handy, too, and encourage the kids who like to draw to illustrate their letters and envelopes.
And, as is ever true, if we adults model the desired behavior for our children, we increase the likelihood that they’ll adopt it.
Write a letter today. Maybe you’ll get one in return!
Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., where she is responsible for shaping the editorial direction of all the magazines, online content and products the company develops for children and their families. She plays a strategic, ongoing role in the development of the Highlights vision and brand across all markets and channels/around the globe. Cully, a mother of two, resides in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.
Over the past 15 years I have studied the effects of media on children, and I continue to work to help create good content for children, both on and off screen. But as a mother of three children, I understand at a deeper level that digital screen media are growing in prominence in the lives of children – at all ages. And with the plethora of screen media options occupying more and more available downtime for kids, I have begun to appreciate even more those activities that are not tied to a screen. Puzzles are one such activity.
So what is it about puzzling that is educational, and what skills can be learned from such activities? Well, puzzling can build skills at every developmental stage. As children attempt to solve a puzzle, they learn to feel a sense of mastery. It also teaches them to persist in order to accomplish a goal. Each type of puzzle brings with it some specific skills that can be learned. Here are just a few:
Distinguish Differences in Visual Images. Hidden Pictures® puzzles develop the ability to distinguish differences in visual images. This skill helps children pay attention to details and understand subtle differences between similar-looking objects. This is especially important as children learn to read and distinguish letters such as b, d, p, and q. Children also learn how objects correspond in shape, size, color or design. As they work on these pictures, children begin to understand and identify the properties of objects, and they learn that objects that change in form and/or appearance are still the same object.
Develop Coordination and Visual Discrimination. Completing mazes takes coordination of small muscle movement and hand-eye coordination. Children also learn visual discrimination through determining how to reach an end-goal by using their sight to follow a path to reach the finish. These skills can help children both with handwriting skills as well as visual tracking skills needed to learn to read. In addition, it can help with more obvious hand-eye coordination skills such as catching a ball or hitting a ball with a bat.
Developing Matching Ability. Matching games allow children to practice important skills such as matching shapes and patterns (a pre-math skill), and then letters and words (a pre-reading skill). This, in turn, will give them one-to-one correspondence skills where they will be able to match one set with a member of another set (for example one sock with one shoe), which is important for learning properties of objects and how things can go together in different categories.
When possible, sit down with your child and puzzle together. Not only will it be a bonding experience, but your puzzling skills can model effective solving strategies for your child.
January 29 is National Puzzle Day!