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.