Putting it all together: Jigsaw puzzles serve as strong child development marker

NORWICH, England —¬†Once looked upon as a staple of home entertainment, jigsaw puzzles have certainly felt the impacts of the digital age. Children and families who probably would have completed some a few decades ago now spend much of their leisure time in front of a screen of some kind. A new study, however, offers up a great reason for families to dust off their old jigsaw puzzles or invest in some new ones.

Children don’t fully understand how to complete jigsaw puzzles until they’ve reached a certain developmental level, according to the research out of East Anglia University. As such, the puzzles represent a simple way for parents to make sure their young child is on track developmentally.

The average child is able to use visual cues from the puzzle pieces and box display image to complete a jigsaw puzzle around the age of four. Prior to that, children are pretty much only playing a game of chance using trial and error. The developmental advancements children around the age of four display while completing jigsaw puzzles are the “foundation” for future drawing and writing skills, researchers say.

“We looked at children’s ability to do jigsaw puzzles. Surprisingly, there’s virtually no research on this, despite the common assumption these are good educational toys,” comments lead researcher Dr. Martin Doherty, from UEA’s School of Psychology, in a release. “We were interested in children’s understanding of pictures as representations. Jigsaws require assembly of a picture, so if children understand how pictures work then they should be better at jigsaw puzzles.”

Tracking how children complete jigsaw puzzles

In total, 169 children took part in this research, all between the ages of three and five.

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Some of those kids were assigned traditional jigsaw puzzles (with a picture) to complete. Others were given jigsaw puzzles with no pictures, and another portion had picture-based jigsaw puzzles featuring evenly-sized rectangular pieces. Also, half of the kids in the third experimental group were even provided with a visual guide of what the puzzle should look like upon completion.

Next, the study’s authors tracked how long it took each child to complete their respective puzzle. The number of times they tried to connect two jigsaw pieces was also monitored.

In addition to all that, another group of children were brought in for the experiment and given a faulty jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing.

Finally, all of the participating children also had their representational understanding measured. This refers to how well one is able to understand another person’s beliefs or perspectives. The researchers believe this is relevant because representational understanding develops in children at the same pace as the ability to view an image and understand what it is about.

“This is the first investigation of how children do jigsaw puzzles, and we were particularly interested in how they use their understanding of pictures to complete them. We found that children who passed tests for representational understanding were able to complete picture jigsaws faster and more efficiently. In general, efficiency increased between the ages of three and five years,” Dr. Doherty concludes. “The really unique thing about this study is that we are showing the age and stage of development at which children gain a fundamental understanding of the nature of pictures. We think this lays a vital foundation for learning to draw and paint.”

The study is published in the journal Child Development.

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