In March we’re focusing on foundational math games as part of March Mathness. In particular, games that work with shapes and colors—the foundational base for more advanced concepts like geometry and trigonometry. Yep…those shapes your kiddos are playing with now are the key to helping them understand more advanced concepts down the road.

Puzzles for early STEM learning- Little Hands Big Smiles Puzzle Set

So how do we get from pre-school wooden shapes and color puzzles to advanced geometry? Well, one way is to support continued growth in using shapes and colors. Those activities engage both the left and right sides of the brain which helps strengthen the nerve cell pathways. Studies have shown that engaging both left and right sides of the brain helps support success in understanding mathematical concepts as well as overall problem solving. It’s one of the reasons we see STEAM programs becoming a focus in education. One of my favorite tools to help engage both left and right brain activity is the jigsaw puzzle.

The benefits of puzzles

Jigsaw puzzles are an amazing invention that began back in the 1700’s. Not known by the name jigsaw then, the jigsaw was added in the late 1800’s when fretsaws were used to produce the puzzle for the mass market. [Note, a fretsaw is not a jigsaw, so why did jigsaw become the predominate name? Who knows…just another indication of how mysterious history can be!] Puzzles come in all shapes and sizes but fundamentally they all involve working with shapes and colors to solve a bigger problem.  Colors and shapes are what make up our natural world so learning how to sort them out, classify them and utilize them in productive ways is actually pretty important.

Puzzles for early STEM learning- Little Hands Big Smiles Puzzle Set

Get them started now!

I am fascinated by watching others approach to puzzle solving when we work one together.  And I often create some tension when I put in 10 pieces to their 1 or 2. But I was blessed with some early life experience that I’m pretty sure my mother didn’t plan. (Well she did plan to find an activity to keep me quiet but I doubt she knew the longer term benefits.)

As a child we went to grandma’s every weekend to help her out. There were no other kids in the neighborhood and as an only child I looked to my parents for entertainment! But they had lots of chores to do, so grandma collected a bunch of puzzles to keep me entertained. As soon as we walked in up went the card table and a puzzle was put out. Over time, I began making a game of solving the puzzle to see how fast I could do it. I learned to organize the flat-sided rim pieces first, then sort the other pieces by color. I learned how to look for certain shapes and began turning them in my mind and not in my hand to see if they would fit. In the end, I could knock out a 500 piece puzzle in an afternoon quietly playing by myself.

What I didn’t know then…and I’m sure my parents didn’t know either, was that I was building some amazing mental flexibility. Those skills would go on to benefit me through my both my career and personal life. As I moved through school, math in all its forms was easy for me. But what I was really good at was solving complex problems…breaking them down into components, sorting facts, identifying unknowns and reorganizing them into a plan of action to get to a solution…and do it quickly. While I’m not a learning expert, I have always believed that my early time spent with jigsaw puzzles was a significant component in my later learning successes. And I’m blessed to be a lifelong jigsaw puzzle lover! Is there anything better, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, than a cup of cocoa and a brand new puzzle!