What Does Puzzling Teach You?

I may have mentioned a time or two recently that I discovered puzzles in the first lockdown.

I mean, I always knew puzzles existed, but I didn’t know they would be a thing I enjoyed.

They were long days stuck at home, trying to keep my partner’s two children entertained.  Various trips to Kmart resulted in bags of entertainment ideas – one of which was a puzzle which we all sat and did together.  Initially I was dismissive.  I was happy to try something new, but didn’t think this would be my cup of tea.  As a book and movie buff, I figured I had plenty to keep me entertained.

What I didn’t expect though, was the tremendous sense of achievement I felt fitting the puzzle pieces together.  300 piece puzzles were an afternoon of fun.  I went back to a different department store and bought more – surely there were more fun afternoons ahead.

Then I tried a 500 piece one.. and found that I largely completed it myself. I had left the others behind.

It was only when I tried my first 1000 piece puzzle – a two-week long experience of triumph and tears, than it really dawned on me that puzzles were HARD.  And that HARD THINGS WERE FUN. I learnt a lot doing that puzzle, and in the subsequent ones I have done since.

With my teacher hat on, I have decided that puzzles are incredibly instructive as to how the world, and how learning works.


Good strategies make hard tasks achievable

I learned quickly, first by being told and eventually through trial and error, that there are strategies that help puzzles get done.

Firstly, you get the outside done.  All those blunt ends fit together and give you a great starting point.

Then choose a recognizable section and work on that, trusting that when you do enough of these, they will start fitting together.

This is very much like tackling any kind of challenge, especially an academic one.  Good strategies make mastering any hard task that much easier.  In fact, even Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, will tell you that focusing on strategies rather than ability is a much more constructive mindset to approach learning with (see her TED Talk here).


Taking a break is better than breaking it off

There are times when I think I am done with a puzzle – that I could walk away and never look at it again.  But I have never given up on one, and all of them have gotten done in the end.

Giving up seems like an easy out – but it isn’t one that feels good.  When I get frustrated with a puzzle, I give myself a time out.  I go and do something else for a few hours.  I always find that when I come back to it, fresh eyes allow rapid progress to be made.  And then I hit a wall again. And so the process continues….

Sometimes a break is the best thing to do when confronting a complex problem.


Working in a team really can lighten the load

Sometimes, my partner sits with me and starts working on the puzzle too.  And we work together – sometimes for hours, and make tremendous progress.

I remember one lovely Saturday lockdown night (oh how times have changed) where we worked on a puzzle (pictured) together and laughed and talked and listened to music… it was a wonderful night and a break from watching TV.

But it was lovely to work as a team – and we got so much done over those few hours.  All of a sudden the puzzle was finished. And we could celebrate achieving that together.


Time energy and effort will eventually be rewarded

When you take your time, keep your cool and get that puzzle done, there is no feeling like it in the world.  Completing a puzzle reminds you that the best things take work – and that hard work often makes things worth doing.  And isn’t that so true of so many things in life?


AND – you can enjoy unexpected things

As I mentioned earlier, and in my last article on trying new things – it’s nice to surprise yourself – even at my age and even in lockdown.

It is good to remind ourselves that there are no full stops when it comes to self-identity.  We are always growing, changing and developing.  Trying something new in this case – even something I initially thought was a little, well dorky, led me to an exciting new area to explore in my life.  I might have a rest between puzzles, but I know now there will always be the next one (or ten right now) waiting in the cupboard, with all the now familiar joys awaiting.

I keep at the puzzles (there’s even an Impossipuzzlewith 1000 virtually identical pieces  in the cupboard for when I am ready), and often when the kids are over I have a huge one on the go.  Often, the elder girl of 7 will sit and do a few pieces with me or her dad.  Recently, her mother rang to show off the 200 piece puzzle she had done on her own.  And all the strategies she had used to accomplish it.  Proud moment – and a really hopeful one.  She who can conquer puzzles, can conquer anything!