Monday, April 12, 2021

"First Puzzles are Hard, Then You Turn them Easy"

I've always felt that classic jigsaw puzzles held a special place in our classroom. They stand out as uniquely directive in that there is, in the end, only one right way assemble them. Yes, of course, a child might have other ideas. Someone might, say, build a tower with the pieces or something and once a group of children used puzzle pieces as a kind of currency in the game they were playing, but for the overwhelming majority of children I've taught, puzzles, be they on table tops or on the floor, say to children, "sit down, concentrate, and solve me." 

Certain toys tell children how to play with them. Balls can be used for all sorts of things, but among the things they say most loudly is "throw me," which is why, if you don't want balls flying around the classroom, we tend to restrict balls to the outdoors. Puzzles are not usually the most "glamorous" thing in the room and they are often overlooked. Frequently, a child engaged in more active play will simply cruise by, dump all the pieces out their frames, then walk away, leaving a jumbled pile of pieces from several puzzles in a messy heap. It's one of the most common ways children use puzzles towards something other than the right answers that are built into them.

I like sitting with children as they sort through puzzles. For one thing, it's a great exercise in non-intervention. As children turn pieces around and around trying to find the piece that fits, it can take every ounce of willpower to restrain myself from offering unsolicited advice. For another, even in a busy classroom, a child bent over a puzzle is a study in focus, their thoughts revealing themselves in the movements of their little fingers as they study shape and pattern, as they seek out the perfect fit. For most children, it's a silent, solo activity, although they might team up with friends, talking their way through a process. There is a lot for an adult to learn from overhearing those conversations. And some children especially like to have someone listening as they talk their way through it, "Like this . . . No, maybe like this . . . Turn it around and around . . . No . . . no . . . no . . ."

Puzzles are about perseverance in the face of repeated failure. They are a cycle that moves from chaos to order and back again. Many children will work the same puzzle over and over. Many years ago, I sat with a girl who was exploring this cycle, repeatedly assembling the same puzzle over and over until she had mastered it. Only after a dozen or so repetitions would she then push it aside and move on to the next puzzle. Again and again, I watched her start from not knowing and work her way to mastery. Her process was methodical and calm. There was in no hurry to her careful method of trail and error as she noodled her way through one puzzle after another. As she started in on a new puzzle she would say, "This one looks hard." After mastering it, she would say, "This one is easy."

I finally couldn't help myself, saying to her, "You said that one was hard a few minutes ago, but now you said it's easy."

"Yes," she answered matter-of-factly, "First puzzles are hard, then you turn them easy." She surveyed the table where four wooden puzzles were neatly assembled. "I turned all of these easy."

I asked her if she wanted me to get her some more puzzles that she could "turn easy." 

"No, that's enough."

"How about I get out some different puzzles for tomorrow?"

"No, keep these same ones. I want to see if they stay easy." Then she opened her eyes wide at me, "Sometimes they don't!" And off she went into a world of chaos.


As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. Discounts are available for groups.

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