Putting it all together: puzzles serve as a strong marker of child development

NORWICH, England — Once considered a staple of home entertainment, puzzles have certainly felt the effects of the digital age. Children and families who probably would have finished a few decades ago now spend much of their free time in front of a screen of some kind. A new study, however, offers a great reason for families to dust off their old puzzles or invest in new ones.

According to research from the University of East Anglia, children do not fully understand how to solve puzzles until they reach a certain level of development. As such, puzzles are an easy way for parents to ensure their young child is on the right developmental path.

The average child is able to use visual cues from the puzzle pieces and the box display picture to complete a puzzle by the age of four. Before that, kids were pretty much just playing a game of chance using trial and error. According to the researchers, the developmental progress that children around four years old display when completing puzzles is the ‘base’ of future drawing and writing skills.

“We looked at children’s ability to do puzzles. Surprisingly, there is hardly any research on this, despite the common assumption that they are good educational toys,” comments lead researcher Dr Martin Doherty, from the UEA School of Psychology, in a statement. “We were interested in children’s understanding of images as representations. Puzzles require putting a picture together, so if kids understand how pictures work, they should be better at puzzles.

Track how kids complete puzzles

A total of 169 children participated in this research, all between the ages of three and five.

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Some of these children were given traditional puzzles (with a picture) to complete. Others received puzzles without pictures, and another party had picture-based puzzles with rectangular pieces of equal size. What’s more, half of the children in the third experimental group even received a visual guide to what the puzzle should look like when completed.

Next, the study authors tracked how long it took each child to complete their respective puzzle. The number of times they tried to connect two puzzle pieces was also monitored.

On top of all this, another group of children were brought in for the experiment and given a faulty puzzle with a missing piece.

Finally, all participating children also had their representational understanding measure. It refers to a person’s ability to understand another person’s beliefs or perspectives. The researchers believe this is relevant because representational understanding develops in children at the same rate as the ability to see an image and understand what it is about.

“This is the first survey of how children do puzzles, and we were particularly interested in how they use their understanding of pictures to complete them. We found that children who passed the puzzle comprehension tests representation were able to complete picture puzzles more quickly and efficiently. In general, efficiency increased between the ages of three and five,” concludes Dr. Doherty. “The really unique thing about this study is that we show the age and developmental stage at which children acquire a fundamental understanding of the nature of images. We believe this is an essential foundation for learning to draw and paint.

The study is published in the journal Child development.

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