I have always treated and considered puzzles from an educational standpoint, for the reason that they constitute a species of mental gymnastics which sharpen the wits and train the mind to reason along straight lines. Puzzles are a school for cleverness and ingenuity. ~ Sam Lloyd (1841-1911)

The above quote by one of the world’s greatest puzzle masters, written much before the emergence of the fields of cognitive psychology and neurology, sheds light on what is now being confirmed by advanced tools and research in the realms of cognitive development.


Studies have confirmed that the interaction with stimulating learning games along with objects to explore, increases the number of branches on the nerve cells in the brain and can promote better learning

  •  Furthermore, a team led by Torkel Klingberg at the Karolinska Institute, part of the Stockholm Brain Institute, has found signs that the neural systems that underlie working memory (a cognitive function related to general intelligence) may grow in response to training.
  •  Regarding the neural basis for development and plasticity of cognitive functions during childhood, in particular the development of attention and working memory, this information shows that correct training and educational exposure can yield sustained attention, better impulse control and improved learning ability, as well as correct critical learning deficits.
  •  Historically, a person’s IQ – a measure of all kinds of mental problem-solving abilities, including spatial skills, memory and verbal reasoning – was thought to be fixed by nature – locked into a person’s genes. However, Dr. Beth Lucy Wellman (1895-1952), a professor of child psychology at the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station was instrumental in advancing her findings that a child’s IQ and scholastic performance depend on the quality of intellectual stimulation and social environment.
  •  Leading the way for the type of research currently being conducted as to what type of nurture will provide the best medium to develop a child’s abilities. What, in particular, compose the “positive, nurturing environments that encourage interaction and response – the conditions for developing the more complex neural networks that appear to be the ‘hardware’ of intelligence”
  •  Many psychologists and researchers have come to a decidedly intuitive and simple conclusion, one that hearkens back to the words of Sam Lloyd: Child’s play – Fostering children at play through enriching games, puzzles and activities – and in doing so, nurturing major cognitive functions and crucial developmental stages.
  • Children who are furnished with construction toys, such as wooden cubes and geometric puzzles develop visual-spatial abilities that are related to math and science achievement. These types of toys can stimulate visual/spatial thinking and problem solving, demonstrating skills vital to “future engineers, architects, pilots, mathematicians, scientists, computer programmers or technicians, entrepreneurs, artists musicians, mechanics, human relations professionals, or spiritual leaders”.
  •  Furthermore, the skills developed through the interaction with tangible 3-D toys and geometrical puzzles that stimulate visual spatial learning are reinforced through haptic perception – the tactile perception through the skin and kinesthetic perception of the position and movement of the joints and muscles, a developmentally important experience lacking in computerized models and games.
  • The development of executive function, the activity of the brain that is responsible for the ability to manage organization, priority-setting, time management, and decision making is dependent on the high order processes of elective attention, behavioral planning and response inhibition, as well as the manipulation of information in problem-solving tasks.
  • It is crucial for children as they mature into young adults and its function in self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime, whereas good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ, as well as effective development in almost every domain.
  •  Children develop executive functions through “learning to be organized, using a routine, purposeful scenarios for problem solving and higher order thinking. These are all features of many simple wooden toys and brainteasers.
  • Unfortunately, many of today’s games and toys are overly structured, goal-oriented, and push the child to follow predetermined scripts, whether through guided computer activity, or by actively directing the play of the child through talking, lights, buttons and levers.
  • To counteract this, in addition to giving the child “unstructured” play time, toys that don’t command the child, but rather leave the child in command, can be very useful. Professor Hirsh-Pasek, of Temple University, Philadelphia, recommends searching the “least traveled aisles” in toyshops to parents who “really want to prepare their children for life in next generation”. Research shows that puzzles and brain teasers help nurture intelligence
  • Traditional wooden toys make a pleasing change from the noisy, flashing plastic eq.uivalents that fill the shelves of toy shops today. It has also been shown that toys and puzzles with distinct, ordered solutions that require time, patience and planning to solve yield added benefits to the learning process within the exciting moment of recognition in which the correct solution is achieved.
  • The authors of a review on Engineering Education at Indiana University posit this “ah-ha!” moment as an “important cognitive event” of the learning process. Specifically it “enhances performance in creative problem solving and creative design, and it can play a role in transforming learning from an activity of drudgery to one of enjoyment.
  • The search for a solution to challenging puzzles produces such “ah-ha!” moments, which in turn can lead to the development of students who will find learning exciting later in life. On the macro level, toys, games and child’s play crucial to neural and cognitive development also have specific functions within particular stages of childhood.
  • Using the Constructivist Theory of child development, advanced by Jean Piaget, many psychologists have advised parents and educators to structure the physical environment of children so that learning and development occur naturally, and in appropriate stages, through the interaction with the environment and people around them.
  •  Again, appropriate materials are necessary to this structuring, including toys and games that stimulate interaction. Various Mind Twisters, Brain Teasers, and Geometric Riddles and Puzzles are essential to give children and students a chance to manipulate objects and test out ideas and hypothesis as they progress to Middle Childhood.
  •  Board games and others with specific rules have been shown to enhance discrete skills as well as cooperation, understanding and logical thinking. For example, researchers working at the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, DC, recently found a correlation between math achievement and students’ exposure to board games at home.
  •  Furthermore, in today’s high tech world, it is interesting to note that when it comes to games, toys and puzzles, the more traditional, simple, tactile, loosely structured, visual/spatial offerings can make a very significant contribution to a child’s intelligence and developmental well-being.

It is not a surprise that Sam Lloyd, speaking 100 years ago, is still relevant to the discussion of education and the development of intelligence today.

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