For as much as children’s entertainment has changed over the years, one thing that never seems to change is how much kids love puzzles. Whether it is connecting two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, following the path to the end of a maze, or discovering the hidden banana in a detailed illustration, puzzles entertain and engage kids of all ages in ways that few other activities can. And as a parent, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your child fully engaged in a puzzling challenge!
But puzzles are more than just a fun way to pass the time. Well-designed puzzles help children develop essential math, reading, and problem-solving skills. The best puzzles foster critical skills while providing age-appropriate subject matter and even humor for a fully engaging experience. As parents continue to look for indoor activities during these cold winter months, there’s never been a better time for them to consider how puzzles can serve as tools to help their kids develop and master important competencies.
Here are three puzzles that are kid favorites—and some of the specific skills they foster:
Hidden PicturesTM puzzles
Children of all ages love to search the big illustration to find the small objects hidden within. Little do they know that Hidden Pictures puzzles are teaching them to distinguish between differences in visual images by paying attention to details and understanding 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. Paying attention to both the images and the negative space between them, children begin to understand and identify the properties of objects. They learn that objects that change in form and/or appearance are still the same object.
Completing mazes takes coordination of small muscle movement and hand-eye coordination, which helps with handwriting (and, indirectly, with catching and hitting a ball). These puzzles also help kids develop visual discrimination skills, as they use their sight to follow a path to its proper end. Mazes can also help children with visual tracking—a necessary skill for learning to read.
These games offer practice in identifying shapes and creating patterns (pre-math skills), and then letters and words (a pre-reading skill). This, in turn, will help them understand one-to-one correspondence, where they will be able to match one set with a member of another set (for example, one sock with one shoe). This understanding is necessary for learning properties of objects and how things can go together in different categories.
What else do kids learn from doing puzzles? Persistence! Puzzles are great for teaching kids to persist to accomplish a goal, a skill that will serve them through their lives. Because puzzles are fun, kids are motivated to stick with the challenge. When they figure it out, they feel a sense of achievement and gain self-confidence. That’s what we want for kids—that “I-can-do-it” attitude.
And there’s more good news for busy parents. As a leisure activity, puzzling is very accessible. Kids have a wide choice of options— from traditional paper-and-pencil puzzles, to board game puzzles, to digital puzzles that can be downloaded on a phone or tablet. And puzzles don’t always require a big time commitment. In 15 minutes—the time it takes to be served at a restaurant—a parent and child can solve a word search or complete a connect-the-dots puzzle. That’s 15 minutes of learning and bonding—a great return on a small investment.
Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., publisher of the best-read children’s magazines in North America for the past 67 years. In this role, Cully is responsible for shaping the editorial direction of all of the company’s products including the flagship publication, Highlights magazine, for school-aged children; Highlights High Five for preschoolers; and Highlights Hello for babies and toddlers. She also oversees the Highlightsbook division and its digital products for kids, including websites and mobile apps. Under Cully’s leadership, Highlights has expanded to deliver its content to children in 40 countries throughout the world including China, India, Malaysia and South Africa. Cully lives in Honesdale, PA and is a mom to two adult children.