Serious Learning, Serious Fun: How Brainteasers, Games, and Puzzles Help Kids Learn
By Hannah Thelen
Building an engaging lesson that will capture a child’s attention and fight off boredom is a constant struggle for every educator. The solution to this problem may be found nestled at the intersection between play and learning: Puzzles.
Puzzles come in many forms. Traditional jigsaw puzzles and other physical assembly puzzles, word puzzles, math puzzles, and logic puzzles have been enjoyed for generations, and exist all over the world. Regardless of what form they come in, puzzles and other thinking games offer extensive cognitive benefits while keeping kids of all ages active, engaged, and motivated to learn.
Kathleen Donahue, homeschool parent and owner of Labyrinth Games and Puzzles in Washington, D.C., facilitates after-school strategic game classes in 13 elementary schools, and knows firsthand the power of puzzles in children’s education. Donahue says that puzzles are “less intimidating than a lot of other educational instruments,” so kids have more confidence when practicing their skills. “With games, puzzles, and boardgames, there is an attainable solution. And if it is attainable, kids don’t give up.”
Educators like Donahue know that solving puzzles isn’t just fun. It actually exercises skills that make it easier for kids to understand and retain difficult lessons. These include critical thinking skills, problem solving abilities, creativity, visualization, and memory.
Developing critical thinking skills is especially important, as described in a paper from American Psychologist: “We know that middle school students can make substantial improvements in problem-solving ability—even general IQ—when they are taught general principles of critical thinking.”
Puzzles require students to create strategies in order to solve a problem, applying both prior knowledge and new information. They also encourage kids to contemplate and compare solutions in order to achieve a goal.
Furthermore, games can be used to develop more specialized skills. For example, Donahue says, “If kids have to use math to win a game, they more readily internalize the concept and the skill.” Any hands-on learning will work—even board games that use simple addition to calculate points.
Using Puzzles in Homeschooling
Incorporating puzzles into specific lessons requires a little creativity, but here are some ideas to try:
For English or language lessons
Word games and logic puzzles lend themselves easily to English classes. “Puzzles can be particularly powerful in the English and Language Arts classroom because they allow students to approach words logically, mathematically, and visually, creating cross-brain connections,” explains high school English teacher and blogger, Danielle Hall. She also suggests using a game in the style of Taboo® to review characters or major themes from a book, or to help kids memorize vocabulary words.
For history or social science lessons
Classic crossword puzzles, created using historical figures, events, or vocabulary, are perfect for history or social studies lessons. They can help kids connect important information given in the clues, such as “Written by James Madison in 1789” to the phrase they are trying to guess, “Bill of Rights.”
For math lessons
Number-oriented games like chess, checkers, or the card game “ninety-nine” are great ways to exercise math skills. Logic puzzles and math story problems are even better. Fun story problems can be found in the book One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve With Math, which offers brief, one-page “mysteries” that can only be solved using math and logic skills. These brainteasers can be worked on individually or discussed in a group before revealing the answer on the next page. Ryan McAllister, Ph.D., a biophysicist at Georgetown University, said of the book, “Math often gets a bad rap for being hard and unpleasant. Mysteries, on the other hand, are fun and exciting…. Readers get to use their logic and reasoning skills while playing Sherlock Holmes!”
For science lessons
Incorporating puzzles into a science lesson can be tricky, but fortunately the One Minute Mysteries series also offers 65 Short Mysteries You Solve with Science, and 65 More Short Mysteries You Solve with Science. With the same brainteaser format as the math book, these puzzles require kids to think critically and utilize their science knowledge to find a solution. Even without specific science content, any puzzles can be used to introduce the scientific method. To solve a puzzle, students must observe, hypothesize, test their solution, and make conclusions.
Puzzles can also be used as a warm-up to get a child interested and thinking critically before a lesson. Education World, an online resource for teachers, states, “Puzzles are an excellent tool for quieting students, giving them something to focus on…. Used in that way, the puzzles make a good segue to more serious learning.”
The benefits of puzzle solving don’t end with helping kids learn. Working on puzzles can also build social skills and promote positive thinking. Working together with other individuals demonstrates patience, teamwork, and listening skills. Furthermore, “Overcoming the challenges involved in solving a puzzle really gives [kids] a sense of achievement and pride within themselves,” says Janice Davis, Early Childhood Teacher and Learning 4 Kids Founder. “It provides a boost to their self-confidence and self-esteem.”
Puzzles and games provide a rare safe environment where, Kathleen Donahue explains, “you can try them over and over again to gain mastery,” which teaches perseverance and makes a child’s success more impactful.
Regularly using puzzles to supplement lessons not only helps kids focus and engage with the lesson, but also allows them to think creatively to solve problems, process and memorize information more effectively, and gain personal skills that can be used for a lifetime.
Kathleen Donahue’s Suggested Educational Games and Puzzles
- Thinklers! A Collection of Brain Ticklers – Kevin Brougher
- The Brainiest Insaniest Ultimate Puzzle Book! – Robert Leighton, Amy Goldstein, Mike Shenk
- Labyrinth: Find your way through 14 magical mazes – Theo Guignard
- One Minute Mysteries series – Eric & Natalie Yoder
- Bananagrams for Kids – Puzzability
Kemberly Groue, Keesler Air Force Base
Bill Branson, National Cancer Institute
PlaSmart Inc, flickr
Hannah Thelen is an editor for Platypus Media, and strongly believes in the importance of children’s education. She earned her BFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University, and she now lives in Silver Spring, MD, where she enjoys board games and hefty books. She can be reached at Hannah@PlatypusMedia.com.