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.

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