Saturday, January 05, 2013

"Just Right" Puzzles

At one level, puzzles appear in an emergent play-based curriculum as an anomaly, because, as everyone knows, even the youngest two-year-olds, there is a "right way" to work a puzzle.

I'm sure there are "puzzles" out there that are exceptions to this assertion, but typical puzzles, well-considered traditional puzzles, have but a single solution. That's the point of them. I know this is true because children tell me so. Often (okay, most of the time) when I sit down to work a puzzle in the classroom I start by saying, "I'm going to teach you how to do this puzzle," then set about quickly and assertively putting all the pieces in the wrong spots.

"No, Teacher Tom!"

"Not like that!"

"I'll show you the right way."

The two-year-olds might correct me non-verbally, by simply moving the pieces into their proper spots, but they do correct me.

Not every kid enjoys puzzles, some even express an outright animosity toward them, but most kids at one time or another are attracted to creating order from the chaos. Particularly impressive to me are the children who work diligently to discover the "right way," then immediately dismantle it and start over, as if proving their work. Often a child will spend a focused half hour re-working the same puzzle. Others will approach an entire collection of puzzles that way, such as the ones depicted in the photographs here, methodically going one at a time, moving from one puzzle to the next, discovering the "right way" over and over. 

When this kind of focused puzzling is happening, I know we're working with "just right" puzzles, ones that are not too far over their heads (which usually winds up in abandonment or some version of scattering) or too simplistic (which usually winds up with kids imitating me in assembling them incorrectly on purpose). Children will often say, "I need help." When they do, I always answer, "I'll help you," but then dilly-dally a bit, giving them an opportunity to overcome, on their own, whatever obstacle they're facing. Even better is when a classmate jumps in ahead of me to lend a hand: "I can help you." Whatever the case, if by the time I get there, my help is no longer needed, it's another sure sign that we're working with "just right" puzzles.

As a lifelong puzzler, a person who keeps a giant book of New York Times crosswords on my bedside table, I know the challenge of the attempt, the satisfaction of completion, and the desire to start all over again the moment I'm done.

But what I love most is working a puzzle with others; say, spreading the pieces of a huge jigsaw on the dining room table and spending a weekend, off and on, piece by piece, assembling it with family and friends. More often that not, at school this too is an indication that we are working with "just right" puzzles: when the children elect to work together, sharing the challenge of discovering the "right way."

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Barbara Zaborowski said...

There may be only one "right way" for the puzzle to look when done, but there are lots of ways to arrive at that look. Some people look for the corners and then the sides, some sort the pieces by color. Some "big picture" people may put pieces in the area they're going in. Some may look for a long time and then suddenly start putting pieces together. And those are just the differences we can see. Who knows what they're thinking. Puzzles accommodate a lot of different problem-solving styles.

Cave Momma said...

I love puzzles. Particularly jigsaw puzzles. So far my children have shown a great interest in them as well. Both (now 4 and 5 years old) are the do it and take it apart to start over again kids. My 5 year old just recently showed me she could do a (albeit, too easy) puzzle upside down. I'm looking forward to those big family/friend puzzles on the kitchen table.

Robbie said...

What a lovely discussion about puzzles. My three year old classes love puzzles and so do I..and I agree with Barbara that the process of doing a puzzle for each of us may vary. I really encourage children to take a puzzle out of it's frame piece by piece instead of tipping them out! It prevents spillage onto the floor, mixing with other puzzles and also damage to puzzles - but mostly it gives children a chance to scan the puzzle and they have better recall of where the pieces will go. We start demonstrating and encouraging this at the beginning of the year and it doesn't take long for children to do the same.