Wordle is one of the great success stories of the past 12 months, with people all over the world enjoying the daily challenge, sharing their results and comparing strategies online. It’s no surprise this simple word game is such a hit – everyone loves solving puzzles. In addition to being one of life’s simplest pleasures, solving puzzles can lead to improved memory and comes with multiple learning benefits for everyone from preschoolers to grandparents. This week on School Stream, we’re looking through an education lens at how puzzles and gameplay lay the groundwork for many skills paramount to the success of our students in an increasingly digital world.
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What do Jigsaw puzzles, Sudoku, Crosswords and Rubik’s Cubes have in common?
Many people love puzzles and actively seek them out. One school of thought posits that puzzle enthusiasts may be motivated by a high need for cognition, but if you baulk at the idea of sitting down to a jigsaw, it’s worth zooming out to broaden the idea of what a puzzle is. Whether you find yourself enthralled by a cryptic crossword, mesmerised by a Rubik’s cube or engrossed in a sudoku grid, all kinds of puzzles provide an ‘on-ramp’ to cognitive, physical, developmental and wellbeing benefits.
How do puzzles support learning?
There are so many benefits to puzzles and problem-solving games that it feels hard to know where to start. There is plenty of evidence-backed research to be found online, but here is a snapshot of five key ways that show how this playful pastime supports the development of skills essential for learning.
1. Spatial Awareness, Linguistics, STEM and Preschoolers
Spatial awareness is the ability to be aware of where we are in relation to physical space, objects and other people. This is a life skill most of us take for granted as we apply it constantly without thinking twice as we go about our days. For example, we’re employing spatial awareness when we dance, park a car or recognise the boundaries of personal space in a social setting. As you probably know from your own experience, humble jigsaw puzzles are an educator’s friend when it comes to supporting the development of spatial awareness and reasoning. A puzzle allows kids to practice flipping, rotating, and manipulating pieces and prepares kids to perform this task mentally – a key STEM skill. But spatial awareness also touches on mathematics, reading and writing and, you guessed it, puzzles help here too. Growing vocabulary, shape recognition, attention to detail and problem solving are some of the other skills puzzle solving supports across all ages and stages.
2. Doing puzzles helps increase your attention span
Legal scholar at Columbia University Tim Wu knows a thing or two about paying attention. As the author of The Attention Merchants (and an official role in the Biden White House with responsibility for Technology and Competition policy), he writes about the importance of developing “good attention” which is deep, long-lasting and voluntary. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of capability students need to nurture in order to progress through school – especially in a world awash with information. We tend not to hear too much about attention in education media, but another word we’re all familiar with is ‘engagement’, also defined as “what your brain attends to”. How do puzzles and problem solving games fit in here? Puzzles are beloved by early childhood educators – and their young students – with good reason, puzzles support and develop the capacity of students to pay attention and stay focused on a task.
3. Puzzles give our Left Brain and Right Brain a Workout
Puzzles and problem-solving games are a mental workout that exercises both hemispheres of your brain. Our left brain hemisphere is all about analytics, while our right brain is all about creativity – and we need both to solve puzzles and problems successfully. Neuroscientists have found that when we exercise both sides at the same time we create ‘connections’ between the left and right sides, as well as connections between individual brain cells, both of which increase our capacity to remember and recall, as well as ‘training’ our brain to learn and comprehend complex content.
4. Puzzles improve your IQ
Courtesy of all the brain-building benefits we’ve talked about, a study published in the British Medical Journal found that doing puzzles and other intellectually engaging things over a lifetime improves your IQ. It’s even a protective factor against the inevitable cognitive decline we all experience in old age by giving you a higher starting point.
5. Wellbeing, Resilience and Fun
Solving a puzzle is one of life’s most life-affirming, positive and easily accessible joys – and all this can be experienced by preschoolers who can feel improved self-esteem through the completion of solving a problem. Working on a task that meets at the sweet spot of solvable and challenging encourages resilience, promotes mindfulness through being absorbed and singularly focused on a task and, importantly, is lots of fun too. And we can all get behind a learning opportunity disguised as a game!
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