Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Multiple-component inset puzzles

I look at the title of this post and think, "Boy! That's a mouthful!" And I bet you are all wondering what the heck I mean, too. Let me explain.

The peg puzzle we all know and love is also known as the single-component inset puzzle. The means a single piece fits in a single space in a board. The pieces are 'inset' in the board when the puzzle is assembled. The multiple-component puzzle just takes that difficulty level up a bit. Instead of a single piece per space in the board, there are multiple pieces that need to fit together in that space. And these pieces are not randomly divided, but are components of the whole. This piece is an arm, for example, and that piece is a leg.

With me so far?

This is really a case where a picture is worth a thousand words, so here is an example of what I'm talking about.

You can see how the pieces fit into a space in the puzzle board, like a peg puzzles, but the pieces all fit into the same inset space, instead of each having their own spot. The picture is broken apart in logical places, so that it is still fairly easy for the child to understand what each piece is - one piece is a leg, one piece is a head, etc.

Some of the ways to increase the difficulty of these puzzles are the same as for peg puzzles. A more difficult puzzle might have:
  • More pieces
  • Harder-to-fit pieces
  • More visually complex pieces or base
There are also a few new skills needed to do this type of puzzle. The first thing to consider, is that placed pieces are not obviously correct. Consider this: If you put a piece into a peg puzzle, it fits, or it doesn't, giving an immediate and concrete way to judge whether that piece is in the right spot. With a multiple component inset puzzle, you can put pieces into the board anywhere. Being able to fit them into the larger space is not proof that they are in the correct space.

For example, in the case of the 'Pooh' puzzle above, I might put an arm piece towards the bottom, leaving it in the space, but in the wrong spot. In order to determine if the piece has been placed correctly a measure of judgment has to come into play. You needs to start thinking about whether it looks right or makes sense, and this develops critical thinking skills.

Another new factor with multiple component puzzles is that the placed pieces will slide around until the puzzle is complete. It is easy to bump that first piece out of place when putting in the next piece. This adds a level of difficulty to the fine motor side of the task, and the child will learn to be more precise in their movements, a skill that will come very much into play when trying to line up the borders of jigsaw pieces down the road.

Multiple-component inset puzzles are excellent, but unfortunately they are much harder to find than the common peg puzzle. Fisher-Price made several in the 70s and 80s, so keep your eyes open at garage sales and thrift stores. That is where I have found all of mine!

If you can't find them, I know that Melissa and Doug make a few, but some are designed with speakers that play a noise when the puzzle is complete, which I personally find obnoxious. I have also seen puzzles of this type that are made of plastic in themes of popular children's tv characters (Barney, Blue's Clues, Disney characters, etc). A word of caution on the plastic puzzles - the pieces are quite light, and get bumped out of place VERY easily, which can be frustrating for a child who is learning. If you can, stick with wood, or at least introduce some wooden ones first, to avoid making it too hard, too fast.

Next post... Frame puzzles!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Peg puzzles

When it comes to teaching puzzle skills, exploratory learning is best. You want to be able to provide your child with puzzles that he can do, and slowly increase the difficultly as he learns. But puzzle difficulty can vary along a number of aspects. One 8 piece puzzle is not automatically equal to another. To illustrate what I mean, let's look at peg puzzles first.

Children are often introduced to this type of puzzle at a young age. The single inset, or peg, puzzle is made up of pieces that each fit into their own hole in a board, usually made of wood. The youngest "puzzler" might start with a puzzle of 3-5 pieces, with easy to grasp handles. For first puzzles, it is best if the picture of the piece is printed in the hole where it belongs, as in this photo:

The "vehicles" puzzle above works on matching, planning and fine motor skills, each at an easy level. The pictures on the pieces are nearly identical to those in the spaces. There are only four pieces, and the pieces are easy to handle, fitting easily into the frame.

The difficulty of a puzzle can be increased by many factors. The difficulty level of the matching skill is one of the main ways. In the puzzle above, you needed to match nearly identical pictures. To complete some puzzles you may need to match a piece to a blank spot. In that case, all you have to go on is the outline, such as in the puzzle below.

In the number puzzle below, it is even more difficult, because the picture printed in the space is different from the one printed on the puzzle piece.

To complete this puzzle, you either have to match the outline to the piece, ignoring the distraction of the picture in the space, OR understand the concept that the digit goes with the amount, a much higher level matching skill.

Matching can also become more difficult if the pieces look the same. We all have experienced this when trying to sort out the endless sky of a large jigsaw puzzle, but it holds true for peg puzzles, too. If the puzzle pieces are similar to each other like the "3" and "8'"above, they will be easier to mix up, and you have to pay more attention to the details.

If the background of the puzzle is printed, that can also make the puzzle harder. To understand why, compare the two puzzles below. Suppose you had to put the lion piece back. Both pieces have the matching picture printed in the correct space, but with the puzzle on the right that space is harder to find, because there is just so much more to look at.
Finally, consider also how many pieces are in the puzzles you are providing, and how easy the pieces are to replace. Increasing the number of pieces not only increases the number of steps in the task, but also increases the potential for error. It is similar to increasing the options on a multiple choice test. Selecting the correct answer from 3 options is simpler than selecting the correct answer from 8 options. Also, if the puzzle pieces are harder to replace, more finely tuned motor skills are required, and more persistence, as well.

Peg puzzles are a common toy, but certainly not the only kind of puzzle on the way to learning the skills for jigsaws. In fact, you can begin to introduce easy versions of other kinds of puzzles before your child has completely mastered the more difficult peg puzzles, just for variety. In my next post I'll talk about another option for the toy shelf - the multiple-component inset puzzle.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Choosing puzzles

Working on puzzles is fantastic brain-work for your child. Doing puzzles builds colour and shape awareness, and sharpens visual skills such matching, sorting, and spatial reasoning These are skills that are invaluable for both math and reading. Additionally, working on puzzles encourage characteristics that children need to succeed at academics, such as persistence, on-task behaviour, and the ability to problem-solve.

I know puzzles have been criticized because they are a 'closed end toy' - there is only one right answer. The argument is that puzzles are not good because they do not encourage creative thought. If puzzles were the only plaything you provided, I could see how that might be a problem. However, if puzzle work is balanced with creative opportunities, they can enrich thought processes. After all, consider math, reading or spelling. There are many times where there is only one right answer.

Unfortunately, many children don't choose to play with puzzles, often because of a mismatch of puzzle difficulty to child ability. Think about it. If the puzzles in your home are too easy for you, they are boring to play with, and you won't pick them up. If the puzzles are too hard, you may just give up trying. The key is to please Goldilocks, by offering the puzzles to your child that are 'just right'. But how do you know which puzzles are right?

I will post about five kinds of puzzles, listed here from simplest to most complex:
  1. Single-inset or "peg" puzzles
  2. Multiple-component inset puzzles
  3. Frame puzzles
  4. Juxtapose puzzles
  5. Jigsaw puzzles
Most children can learn the skills they need to do all these kinds of puzzles just through exploration and experimenting. The key is to ensure that the puzzles they are exposed to increase in difficulty gradually - enough to challenge, but not so much as to discourage.

It is amazing how complex puzzle selection can be. When I am done, I am willing to bet you will never look at children's puzzles the same way again. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 7, 2011


a page from my art journal

I started a new round of yoga classes recently. Yoga for Mom 'n Me, offered through the Winnipeg parks and rec department. At the beginning of the first class, the teacher asked us to introduce ourselves and our babies, and share why we had signed up for the class. I said that I wanted to get back into a regular practice.

In his book, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Nathaniel Branden writes,"A practice implies a discipline of acting in a certain way over and over again- consistently. It is not action by fits and starts, or even an appropriate response to a crisis. Rather it is a way of operating day by day, in big issues and small, a way of behaving that is also a way of being."

Practice is so much of my life these days. Little by little, day by day, I am trying to work new patterns into my life. Creating changes in my thinking, in my parenting, in my reacting - just by living mindfully in the moment. That's yoga. Taking what is in your head, and integrating it into how you live, how you move, how you breath. And then taking your breath, that most simple and automatic behaviour of living, and using it to transform what it is in your head. It is a way of operating day by day. A way of being.

I have noticed that my way of operating day by day is pervasive, and difficult to change. The sharp edge of criticism in my self-talk creeps out to colour the way I speak to my son in my frustration. The sighs, the rolled eyes, the "Why can't you just" statements... They are there in my head, but they also come out on my tongue. These are not the words that I want to contribute to the voices in his head! I am determined that negative thinking not be the legacy I pass on.

I am reading, reading, reading about other ways, better ways, but I need so much practice. Paul says it well, in Romans 7:15: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." Oh, preach on, brother. When the ideas are fresh and my head is clear, I feel that I know exactly how to deal with my son, and with myself. But at the end of the day, when my patience is thin and the baby is crying and I just want him to brush his teeth already... Well, you can guess that it does not always work out.

My prayer is still for calm spirits and thankful hearts, and we are blessed to be gaining on them day by day. But there is more work to be done. We need more practice.

One of my favourite parts of my yoga class is the bit at the beginning, where you set your intention for your practice. You can decide to push yourself, or to be gentle, to play with poses, or to settle into them with discipline. But I need to set intention for more than just my life on the mat. So I am setting an intention for a different kind of practice. It is an intention for patience, for forgiveness, and for change for the better.

And when intention meets practice, supported by prayer... That is where the magic happens.
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