Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Challenges Of Puzzles

As a teacher, I find puzzles challenging. I like working them myself, much to my wife's chagrin as I take over the dining room table for a week or more, and maybe that's part of the problem: I have the disease of wanting to get them finished and finished with some amount of speed so that I can get back into her good graces.

There's a level of patience I really have to work to maintain while coaching children through the process, and an urge I need to fight when I see they're going down the tunnel without any cheese, often again and again and again. It's not always easy to know when to guide and when to sit back and let them keep tinkering around. There's a point at which even the most persistent kid will give up in frustration, so you want to intervene, gently, before that point, but at the same time, as a puzzler myself, half the satisfaction is working through to that "ah-ha" moment. Too often I've robbed a child of that, I fear, by sliding the connecting piece into place with my toe.

Better, I think, is when I remember to pay close attention to the puzzler's emotions, then make strategic informational statements like, "I see a lot of blue in that area. I'm going to look for blue pieces," or "It looks like the next piece will have part of a dinosaur's foot on it." Most of our parent-teachers coach the kids by helping look for "edge" pieces, which is certainly the strategy I use when working a puzzle on my own. And that's an effective technique, although I think some kids find it dull, especially when what attracted them to the puzzle in the first place was the picture they would ultimately create. My own daughter as a preschooler, had no patience for the edges-first approach, instead choosing to start, for instance, by putting together the face of Cinderella and working outward from there.

Of course, as a teacher I have to remain keenly aware of the clock, something of which I truly hope the kids aren't too much aware. There is a space of time required to properly puzzle, one wide enough to allow the brain itself to puzzle over its task without the sense of a necessity for haste.

The reality of a classroom, however, is that there is always a time limit to everything. We have a lot of puzzles on the shelves of Woodland Park and sometimes the most important thing I do as a teacher when it comes to puzzles is choosing the right one for the time in front of us. But that's not always an easy thing either. For instance, I got out these simple little puzzles a while ago. If we have a lot of time, we'll mix together the pieces of all 12 puzzles which makes it more of a challenge, but on this day, time was short so I'd kept the pieces for each puzzle segregated. For some of the kids the time was just right to engage meaningfully with 4 or 5 of them, while a couple of our more masterful puzzlers whipped through the lot in minutes. As Orlando stood there surveying the scene, finished with all of them, I pointed at one of the puzzles that had been disheveled by an inadvertently kick, "That one's an abstract puzzle."

I didn't really expect him to understand my comment. Frankly, I was just trying to keep him entertained with conversation while the rest of the kids finished up. He answered, "That's not abstract." He then rearranged the pieces of one of the puzzles. "That's abstract."

Sorry for the photo quality, but you get the idea -- and so, apparently, did he. Orlando then proceeded to make abstractions of all of them.

And it's not only time limits and my own patience that make puzzles a challenge in the classroom, but the fact that many of them are team efforts. Often putting together even the simplest puzzle is complicated by a child who wants to hoard pieces, or insists that one piece goes in the "wrong" place while his peers are sure it goes in another. This is all great stuff, of course, for practicing our negotiating, teamwork, fairness, and friendship skills, all central elements of why we come together in preschool, but it always presents a challenge for both the teacher and the kids.

Not long ago, however, I got to witness one of the more remarkable team puzzling efforts I'd ever seen. It was a large floor puzzle of a castle, one with 40+ pieces. Right from the start Sasha was attracted to it. She was big on the strategy of looking at the picture on the box. Unfortunately, the rotating group of kids who also wanted to work on that particular puzzle where not of the same mind. At some point she took a position at the top of where the puzzle was coming together where she could survey the entire scene. She held the box and with an unreal patience, gently guided the mostly older children through a process that took the better part of an hour. 

What a celebration when it was done! I have a lot to learn from Sasha.

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Ms Debbie said...

Teacher Tom... You inspire me with your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I love it when kids really get the "big" words and concepts. My 3 year olds favorite word is DEVASTATED and she uses it often. The idea that such a young child can comprehend and then give examples of abstract is wonderful. He must have a great teacher;)

Anonymous said...

After reading your post I'm kicking myself in the behind. I think I inadvertently (and oh so inaptly) squished my son's interest in puzzles by simply trying to be helpful. I'll try again. But I do have a question - how do you go about introducing puzzles to a child with fine motor skills problems?