They have been used as an educational toy for hundreds of years and are believed to develop skills such as hand-eye coordination and problem solving.
But little is known about how children learn to do puzzles.
Now, new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA) has put puzzles to the test and found that children only learn to do them once they have reached a certain stage of development.
The study, published today in the journal child development, reveals that three-year-olds use trial and error, but four-year-olds are able to use picture information to solve puzzles. The research team says this understanding is the basis of drawing and painting.
Lead researcher Dr Martin Doherty, from the UEA School of Psychology, said: “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.
“We were interested in children’s understanding of pictures as representations. Puzzles require a picture to be put together, so if kids understand how pictures work, they should be better at puzzles.”
The team, which includes researchers from the universities of Edinburgh Napier, West of Scotland and Warwick, worked with 169 children aged three to five, to see how they put together different types of puzzles at different ages.
Some of the children worked on traditional puzzles with a picture, puzzles without a picture, and picture-based puzzles made up of rectangular pieces of equal size. Half of this group received an illustrated guide showing what the finished image should look like.
The researchers recorded the time it took the children to complete the puzzles and the number of times they attempted to put puzzle pieces together.
Another group of children received a puzzle with a missing piece and different options to fill in the gap.
The children were also tested on their level of representational understanding, including their understanding of the beliefs of others. Researchers argue that understanding the relationship between a belief and the part of the world it is about develops alongside understanding the relationship between an image and what it is about.
Dr Doherty said: “This is the first investigation into 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 did well on representational comprehension tests were able to complete picture puzzles faster and more efficiently. In general, efficiency increased between three and five years of age.
“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 provides a vital foundation for learning to draw and paint,” he added.
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Material provided by University of East Anglia. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.