IN THIS POST: Puzzles are easy to find (and justify as learning) for young children, but is there really any reason to use puzzles as we get older? Find out how learning with jigsaw puzzles is not just for young children – it’s possible for families, older children, and adults.
Completing a puzzle started as an activity that my family did when we went to the beach. We’d get a 500-1,000 piece puzzle, set it out on a table, and then we’d come by and put in a few (or more) pieces as we meandered through the week.
It trickled into our family’s beach trip routine and then started appearing as a family activity with increasing frequency.
To be clear: we don’t do puzzles every month and sometimes not everyone jumps in to help. It’s a hobby that comes and goes and strikes each of us differently.
Nevertheless, as my puzzle experience increased, so did my observations about the benefit of doing puzzles. I started to notice different ways that puzzles helped with learning or with developing thinking skills.
Before I shared my observations on a blog post about learning with jigsaw puzzles, I wanted to see what other conversations had happened surrounding the topic.
This post is from an Alzheimer’s care facility and mentions some surprising observations about benefits of puzzling.
This Southern Living post highlights several recent studies that have pointed to benefits of completing jigsaw puzzles.
And here’s another argument for doing jigsaw puzzles as adults.
Learning with Jigsaw Puzzles
It was great to find confirmation that puzzles have a role to play in our mental and emotional health. But many of the studies and articles are written with vague over-arching benefits: cognition, problem-solving, mindfulness, etc. All good things, no doubt, but big enough categories that many activities could fit.
I’m not going to focus on those broader examples. Instead, I’m going to discuss the ways that puzzles and learning have intersected in my life.
Puzzles with an obvious learning component, such as a map or a periodic table or chart of other information, seem to be beneficial in an obvious way. However, you could buy any of those pieces as a poster to hang on a wall. How does completing a jigsaw puzzle inform learning?
Turns out, when you’re staring a tiny pieces of jumbled information and trying to put them back together you can’t help but make observations.
In fact, this is what started my curiosity on the topic in the beginning. My daughters and I were completing a map of the world a couple years ago for our homeschool class. One of us made the observation out loud that we were all thinking about: “Wow. There’s a lot of water on earth.”
Unless you’re wealthy enough to cruise the world or launch into outer space, fully appreciating the amount of water on Earth may not fully register with you. When you’re trying to put dozens of blue pieces together with only freckles of islands to guide you, it is exasperating. The real difference may be that a trip to outer space brings a sense of wonder, and a puzzle of Earth’s water first brings a sense of panic.
We’ve had similar moments of clarity or observation when completing puzzles of the Presidents or the Periodic Table. Pick something you want to know more about and find a puzzle for it. You’ll be surprised what insights pop into your head. Don’t force it – just enjoy putting the puzzle together – let your brain pick up connections.
How to Approach a Problem
I’ll admit this is one of those titles that looks a lot like the broad benefits of earlier writings. I could wiggle out of it and say that those articles mention “problem-solving,” but the ambiguity is still the same.
Let me get specific with puzzles. Problem-solving is the entire point of a puzzle. Stating that as a benefit seems redundant. Puzzles are problems in a box. You dump them out: problem. What puzzling does teach is how to approach a problem. Break a big challenge into small steps, maybe sort by similar pieces or colors, find the edges, or assign roles.
My eldest daughter is the one most likely to jump into puzzle action when I get the urge to complete one. She and I have a sort of system. She finds an interesting interior part to start on, and I put together the outside edges. This works on a lot of puzzles, but we have to adapt sometimes.
Not every puzzle presents that same type of challenge. Sometimes when we’re working on a circle puzzle the edge comes together organically, or sometimes it waits until the end due to the shape of the pieces. How pieces are cut can also influence what the best approach is.
The more jigsaw puzzles that you complete, the more you contribute to your brain’s ability to analyze and adapt to a presented challenge. Perhaps more importantly, you give your brain practice in adapting. Change is not always bad, and puzzles can give you an opportunity to, in a small way, let your brain safely experience that.
Putting together a puzzle requires a lot of energy on identifying details that join pieces together. Maybe it’s color (more on that next), but it could also be a textured detail or a neighboring form. Noticing details – small picture parts – contributes to big-picture success. It’s a bit like a “spot the differences” challenge.
Maybe this seems like a stretch in terms of a learning benefit, but the more I reflect on science and art lessons for our homeschool the more I notice how observation is an entry-point to learning. Scientists observe small changes in experiments to try to understand how the world works. Artists observe shadows and colors and forms, but they also notice effects created by brush strokes, mediums, and position.
When you train your brain to notice, it is practicing a skill that helps you to navigate and understand your environment better. You can make connections between life pieces that may seemingly be unrelated but on further inspection connect perfectly. I believe words such as “creative” and “innovative” are associated with this kind of thinking. Like anything, it requires practice.
My other theory is that teaching ourselves to “notice” the world arounds us, improves our ability to be grateful. In order to give a genuine “thank you,” people need to first recognize that something has been done for them. To say “thank you” to the person who takes out the trash or loads the dishwasher or folds clothes or mows the lawn or finishes an assignment without reminders or does chores without grumbling or any number of menial, daily tasks, another person has to notice in order to make a “thank you”. Start noticing so you can be thankful and encouraging.
Learn Your Colors
Learning primary colors as a small child is important, and learning to see shades and nuance of color is enriching as an adult. Puzzles invite puzzlers to look closely and observe the distinction between teal and blue or the gradation of a color from darker to lighter.
When you’re trying to match pieces of similarly colored shades, you pay closer attention. You have to look closely at where they stop and start and how they blend. This has never been more apparent to me than for a Harry Potter puzzle that we completed that had Hedwig (a white owl) as a main focal point. Those of us who are not artistically inclined may begin to understand shadows and lighting better.
Puzzles don’t help me draw better, but I have started noticing better. Take a walk in your neighborhood and look for variations of green or yellow.
From a practical perspective, it could help picking paint colors for painting a room. Maybe. No guarantees on that one.
Three Tips for Picking a Puzzle
So now what? How do you pick a puzzle to work on?
My main goal is to do a puzzle that I enjoy. If it’s too hard or complicated, then it’s not for me. Some people enjoy puzzles that are increasingly difficult; if that’s your definition of fun, then go for it. Whatever you enjoy, keep that as your first priority.
When I look for a puzzle that I will enjoy, these are three guidelines that I use.
- Find your numerical sweet spot and stick to it. For me, it’s between 500-1000 pieces. I’ve completed smaller and larger puzzles, but I’ve found that this is my happy place. It is hard enough that it will take a bit of time but not so hard that it’ll take longer than my “puzzle attention span.”
- Variation in the picture. I’m not interested in doing an all-white puzzle or a puzzle with complex patterns. I’m looking for a picture that is colorful, creative, and distinct. Again, if you go for nostalgia or unique challenges, then go for it; find your general type and enjoy.
- Size of pieces. I’m not a big stickler on this one, but the size of the pieces makes a difference. Smaller pieces shrink the space in which you’re working, but they also make it more difficult to see distinctions. Small pieces are more difficult for me to pick up so I tend to get annoyed earlier in the process. Again, I’ll do a puzzle with smaller pieces, but I won’t buy one or go out of my way to do one. Decide what factor this plays in your experience and proceed accordingly.
Jigsaw Puzzles in the Big Picture &
A Word of Caution
I will be the first to admit that learning with jigsaw puzzles is not my go-to learning strategy. I spend a lot more time and energy reading books so I can make reading suggestions for others about Asia or the outdoors. I enjoy exploring new cities such as Boston or New Orleans or local favorites such as the Dulles Air and Space Museum or Planet Word. And, as a homeschool parent, our regular day is filled with learning-based activities such as our massive temperature project or fun art projects.
But! The more I complete puzzles and find new ones and try favorites again, the more I notice distinct benefits to doing puzzles. The best thing is that the perks of puzzling are not obvious – I pick a puzzle to enjoy the process; learning something and engaging my brain are secondary benefits.
So don’t think too much about forcing the learning with jigsaw puzzles. Enjoy the puzzle, but don’t be surprised if unexpected observations bubble to the surface. Learning with jigsaw puzzles is surprising like that – in a good way!