Susan Levine, Ph.D.
Susan Levine, Ph.D.
Co-director of the Center for Early Childhood Research and serves as professor and chair of the Department of Psychology
University of Chicago

Puzzle Smart (Preschool)

What can we learn from early puzzle play that will better prepare kids for the STEM professions?

As studies mount that spatial thinking can actually be enhanced by specific activities at the pre-k level, what can we say about methods that actually work? From my corner of the field, findings from at least two recent studies might help.

Our latest published work homed in on the dynamics of puzzle play with children as they migrated from ages 2 to 4.5. We tracked 53 pairs of kids and their primary caregivers (mostly mothers), at multiple intervals for 90 minutes per visit, recording the encounters on video.

Do these go together?One of the strongest take-home messages from our study is that richer engagement with puzzle play at 2 produced a stronger grasp of STEM-centric concepts at 4.5.

Specifically, the children who showed the most engagement with puzzle play at 2 stayed on their trajectory throughout our study period. Moreover, the strong puzzlers, when tested at age 4.5, performed well above their age peers in one of the gold standard tests for spatial skills—the ability to mentally rotate an object.

So what’s the link between puzzle and spatial? Mastering the placement of puzzle pieces inherently compels the mind—young or old—to recognize shapes and patterns in certain objects and then to imagine how they might fit into the larger whole. More often than not, the skilled players must rotate the piece in their minds to conceive of its place, and then must test their hypothesis by actually trying to place it where they believe it to belong.

Regarding the boy-girl questions that still linger in our field, our studies showed that boys excelled at the more complex puzzles, but it remains unclear to us whether this difference also drew from caregivers mirroring societal cues that encourage boys in these areas.

One of related recent studies may shed further light on this. We coded the same study group for the use of spatial-specific language in the home environment. In broad terms, the frequent use of terms such as “circle,” “triangle,” “curve” or “edge” was linked with stronger performance in spatial testing over time.

As with puzzle play for girls, caregivers of boys used such terms more frequently with boys than with girls, but one detail may provide a clue for how caregivers might better respond with girls: In our study, girls seemed to place greater weight on the value of their caregivers’ use of spatial vocabulary than did boys.

As with so much of what we do, knowing how to tailor for our subjects always seems to matter!