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Study: Puzzle Play May Help Develop Some Math Skills

I recently bought my toddler niece a wooden alphabet puzzle, happily recalling the time I spent with my own kids fitting the "A" shape into the cutout with the picture of an apple. During the toddler years, we played with lots of puzzles, often dumping out the pieces and then trying to slip them back in as quickly as possible.

It turns out that all that puzzle play may have helped my kids develop better spatial skills, according to a new study by University of Chicago researchers.

The study, published in the journal Developmental Science, found that kids who played with puzzles between ages 2 and 4 had better spatial skills when assessed at 54 months old.

Psychologist Susan Levine, the study's lead author and an expert on kids' mathematical skills development, found that children "who played with puzzles performed better than those who did not, on tasks that assessed their ability to rotate and translate shapes," according to the university's website.

That early puzzle play also may help kids develop the ability to mentally transform shapes, which is "an important predictor" of whether older students will take courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and pursue degrees and careers in those subjects, the study found.

The longitudinal study examined puzzle play in a natural setting by monitoring the interactions of 53 pairs of children and parents from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. The pairs were videotaped for 90-minute sessions that occurred every four months between 26 and 46 months of age.

Other interesting notes from the study:


  • Higher-income parents tended to engage their kids with puzzles more frequently.

  • Boys played with more difficult puzzles than girls and boys' parents "provided more spatial language during puzzle play and were more engaged in play than the parents of girls"; and

  • "Boys also performed better than girls on a mental transformation task given at 54 months of age."

Levine says researchers are now studying why boys played with the more-complicated puzzles and why parents interacted differently with boys than with girls.

"We want to see whether parents provide the same input to boys and girls when the puzzles are of the same difficulty," Levine said in the university's release. "In the naturalistic study, parents of boys may have used more spatial language in order to scaffold their performance."

Or, the authors suggest, it could be that parents fell victim to the stereotype that boys have better spatial skills than girls. As a mother of two daughters, I'll be interested in seeing the results of Levine's next study.


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