Puzzling every day

Debbie Jacob -
Debbie Jacob -

I STUMBLED on the joy of putting jigsaw puzzles together during this pandemic. Early on, I bought a 1,000-piece puzzle of ice skaters on a lake because I once loved ice skating. Overwhelmed by so many pieces, I put the puzzle aside. My daughter, Ijanaya, discovered that puzzle when she came home from Sudan on the last flight before our borders closed a year ago March, put it together and encouraged me to start building 300-piece jigsaw puzzles. I worked my way up to 500 pieces, and now plan to tackle the 1,000-piece ice-skating scene before Christmas.

If you do your research online, you will discover the many advantages of putting puzzles together. They help children to develop fine motor skills, concentration and problem-solving skills. They help to develop strategising skills and develop visual-spatial reasoning.

I can attest to that. When I first tackled jigsaws, I often tried pieces that were too big for a space. This rarely happens to me now because I have developed better spatial awareness.

Puzzle-solving helps us to notice detail more, and this skill can help in creative writing. Many puzzle pieces have subtle differences. Noting this helps to develop memory for detail. Over time, I have become shocked at how many times I pick up a puzzle piece I was not searching for and put it directly into a space. It seems like a random act, but I realise memory is involved.

A site I discovered online called cronicas puzzleras says jigsaws “strengthen neural connections and increase the generation of new connections. This increases mental speed and thought processes.”

Jigsaw puzzles help us to develop short-term memory, and they help us to adapt new strategies to solve problems. No two are alike. My first couple tended to have many pieces that fit together horizontally, so when I came across a puzzle with mostly vertical pieces, I felt stumped initially. I had to adjust my strategies. One had many pieces that fitted together in arcs.

Researches say the strategy-building exercises of jugsaws transfer to school and work, making us more innovative while improving critical-thinking skills. They also challenge our ability to adapt to new situations.

The act of putting puzzles together puts us in a zen-like state. Studies say they decrease stress levels, encourage the brain to produce dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that affects our mood. Cronicas puzzleras claims that our bodies produce dopamine every time we put a piece in the right place. Puzzles provide an instant feeling of joy and success.

Undoubtedly jigsaw puzzles build confidence. At the beginning of a puzzle I watch all the pieces and doubt that I can put them together. But that feeling vanishes more quickly with every one I do. Now, I can talk myself into believing in the process of puzzle-building.

Puzzles are the perfect alternative to online games for children. They create a sense of flow – that feeling of being totally lost in an activity. Lockdown aside, children often need such activities to occupy their minds during weekends or long school vacations.

Puzzles take time so they encourage patience in this push-button world. They also increase tolerance for long-term activities. A challenging puzzle will take days or even weeks to complete.

The trick is to get age-appropriate puzzles that are challenging, but not frustrating. If you look on amazon.com, they will give recommendations for age levels and show the size of the puzzle pieces. It’s important to get puzzles with pictures that attract your interests. Bright colours create an uplifting, cheery atmosphere. Dark puzzles can be frustrating and difficult to put together. After I made the mistake of getting a puzzle with a dark, jungle scene I realised how much bright, vibrant colours in puzzles lift our moods.

I recently bought a zodiac cat puzzle, which proved  fun because each panel was a complete picture.

There are seasonal puzzles that can create excitement and cheer for a holiday like Christmas. Many puzzle scenes transport us to places with beautiful scenery from different parts of the world. Seascapes, gardens, foreign cities, hot-air balloons and bird scenes prove uplifting.

We often think of puzzles as children’s activities, but all the benefits mentioned above help adults as they get older: they keep our brains sharp. As we get older, we lose concentration, spatial awareness and patience. Puzzles help to sharpen those skills. They create hours of fun-filled learning activities.

It took this pandemic to spark my interest in puzzles. Now I can’t get through a day without working on one.


"Puzzling every day"

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