It’s More Than Jigsaw-puzzling

I borrowed the idea for my title from the Genius of Play organization. When you have a moment, check out their website. The Genius of Play’s mission is to provide families with the information and inspiration they need to make play an important part of their child’s day. Their website is filled with great information for parents, teachers, caregivers, and anyone interested in play.

I had the pleasure of working with the Genius of Play when they sponsored a panel at the Smithsonian Institute. I wrote a bit about it here. I plan to revisit that night, but for now I just mention my definition of play:

Play is a fun and powerful way of interacting with the world — with people, things, thoughts, and ideas. The fun of play is a large part of its power. When we play we laugh, we let go of worry, we fret less, and we breathe more.  This helps our brains — regardless of our ages or tasks — be more open and able to explore possibilities, entertain new ideas, and learn. When we play we are so much more willing to take risks — and even when we fail, we discover that failure isn’t the end, instead it’s the opportunity to begin the game again — stronger and smarter!

I was reminded of that definition today as I began a new jigsaw puzzle. While sorting pieces, I laughed out loud as I recalled another thing I said about play that evening. Play allows us to do things over and over again in joy. Often these are tasks that, done outside of play, might be devoid of joy, and sometimes so awful we’d just as soon stick a pencil in our eye! Oh my!!!

Back to the more about jigsaw-puzzling-play. I noticed a ton of more today, but I’m sure there is even more more that I’ve not yet discovered.

I begin my jigsaw-puzzling with a huge first sort usually oriented towards the fact that I have 6 sorting bins and the two parts of the puzzle box. I don’t look for pieces that go together, but happily accept the connections that show themselves without my help. I separate the edge pieces, and then sort the middle ones by color. My sorting becomes more refined as I construct the puzzle.

I’ve always seen the sorting as a connection to mathematics. After all, I’m looking for and finding patterns and colors; I’m rotating and orienting pieces; and I’m constantly considering spatial information and problems. But today I noticed the connection to literacy — writing, revising, spelling, reading, main ideas, noticing, thinking, wondering, joy and awe.

The scrap copy of a writing piece, or even the first attempt at spelling a word is a lot like my first sort. As writers or puzzlers, we put our pieces where they seem to belong.

Ever time I work a puzzle, I make mistakes. I’m convinced a piece is lost. I sort incorrectly. I find a piece containing something I hadn’t noticed before. I lose a piece under my sorting bins.

What to do? Fret? Berate myself? Decide I’m really bad at puzzling? Give up? No! The playful nature of puzzling helps me react with patience, amazement, and joy. I am continually surprised at what my eyes and brain are able to perceive as I become more familiar with the puzzle. I begin to see gradients of colors I hadn’t noticed before. I find pieces I was convinced were missing the day before.

Frequently, I relook at what I have, rethink, and make some tweaks. Today I was able to make a powerful change when I realized I didn’t have to put green, brown, and red together because I actually have a red bin that I had overlooked. So simple, so silly, and yet, so valuable. Isn’t this like what happens as we, or our students, revise and edit our writing?

As I sort, I make a plethora of decisions. At first I might make my decisions by which color is most prominent. Does this piece have more red or more yellow? As I examine more and more pieces, I begin to get a better feeling for the puzzle. Then, I start to wonder what is most important. What might be a really important detail as I continue to construct the puzzle? Might those blue lines be helpful? I wonder if that small area of green will be a key bit of information to help me place that piece? Should I keep all the pieces with circles in the same space?

This thought process is very similar to the thinking that goes into understanding a story. I notice some things as I begin to read. Then, as I read more, I learn more, interact more, wonder more. What’s the main idea? Who’s the main character? Is she kind or does she just seem like she’s kind? Is my understanding that she is mostly brave causing me to miss that one pivotal and powerful moment of weakness? What does that one fact (one puzzle piece) remind me of? Often I don’t just move forward in the text — or the puzzle – sometimes I retrace my thinking and doing. A new understanding or noticing makes me recall a detail, thought, idea — puzzle piece — that I saw eons ago, and had, until this very moment, not realized I needed, so, back I go.

I chuckled as I took photos to share on this post. How difficult is it to distinguish a straight edged piece from a piece with no straight edges? Clearly, quite difficult! I noticed I had an edge piece in the red bin, then when I went to photograph it, I noticed another! Then upon closer investigations I noticed that the two edge pieces looked like they might fit together. They did! I felt a bit of glee at this unexpected gift.

That experience made me think about my K girls working on spelling words, or forming their letters correctly. They place and form the letters with the information and understanding they currently possess. Things that may seem obvious to us, or will become obvious to them later on, are now overlooked. As they become more familiar with the puzzle pieces — the letters themselves as well as the many sounds they make — they notice new, more accurate and helpful ways to put them together. It’d be fantabulous if I could help them to react to their new realizations – not as weaknesses or moments for embarrassment — but instead as gifts and moments for awe at the remarkableness of their big beautiful brains!

There is an abundance of opportunity in jigsaw-puzzling. The possibilities for joy, learning, and conversation abound. Here are some conversation starters:

How might we begin?
Wow, I never thought of that. Tell me more.
That’s very interesting, how did you make that decision?
What are you thinking?
Wow! Did you see that?
You changed your mind? Awesome. I’d love to know why.
How did you find that piece so quickly? I’ve been looking forever!
Where do you think I should sort this piece?
I wonder if the red color, or the white circle is more important? What do you think? Hmmm, why do you think that?
Gosh, did you notice all these colors in the mountain? At first it looked black to me, now it seems filled with colors. What colors do you see?
I wonder why I didn’t see all the colors at first.
Oh that’s awesome.
So amazing that we couldn’t figure that out for days, and now you/we did!
Your big beautiful brain is fantabulous!
I love puzzling with you.

Play — of all kinds — is a powerful, profound, and fun tool for learning. Let’s be brave, open, and creative. Let’s discover the more, and use it.


13 thoughts on “It’s More Than Jigsaw-puzzling

  1. Such great thinking in this post! And to think a simple word like play and a jigsaw puzzle started the thought that grew and grew. I love the idea of new realizations as gifts and moments for awe. I think I will hold on to that thought for a while. I know I will need to remind myself to appreciate that gift when something isn’t working quite right.


  2. Oh boy, this may have convinced me I need to try to play more and even try jigsaw, which I’ve always equated with math. And somewhere along the line, I have convinced myself that math is not my friend or my fancy. Sending this on to a friend glues and saves her puzzles.


    • Nanc! I’m so glad you might do a bit more play and even jigsaw! I hope you enjoy whatever you choose to do. Remember – fun is important 🙂

      I love math, but I know lots of people who don’t. There’s ways to play with math, too, to make it more fun and better suited for those who don’t immediately gravitate to it.

      Yay for playing! Have a wonderful day.


  3. Fascinating journey through jig-sawing. I was thinking how wonderfully your post “makes thinking visible.” I also remembered many years of putting puzzles together (one was a clear glass apple on a red background, which took FOREVER). May be time to resume this hobby, to keep the brain working out. 🙂


  4. Fascinating journey through jigsawing. I was thinking how wonderfully your post “makes thinking visible.” I also remembered many years of putting puzzles together (one was a clear glass apple on a red background, which took FOREVER). May be time to resume this hobby, to keep the brain working out. 🙂


  5. Oh my gosh, I’m going to have to buy a puzzle now. I’m remembering how my son and I used to put the same giant Dr. Seuss puzzle together again and again, and how those edges and shapes became so familiar, but the routine never became boring. I want to cover my coffee table with something giant we could all work on together! What a wonderful comparison between this process and writing.


  6. Your piece opened my memory vault. You won’t believe but my first contact with puzzles was when I was eighteen and visited the USA for the first time. I was utterly confused at first why my host family was doing with such tiny pieces. I observed, then tried and then I was hooked. I returned from my first visit with a large and beautiful floral puzzle for my younger sister. My family has many, many puzzles. Several were revisited during the state of emergency when we were all at home.


  7. Reading your definition of play makes me think that I need to add play to my OLW possibilities for future years. I particularly loved this sentence: “When we play we laugh, we let go of worry, we fret less, and we breathe more.” Wow, great benefits for a pandemic stressed world!
    And I had never seen those sorting bins until a friend recently had them in a bag I picked up from church. She had used them for a different purpose, but I’m thinking I may want some of these. We’ve always just used cookie sheets for puzzle sorting.


    • LOVE the idea of play as a OLW. Such a great word. Makes me think — Hmmm maybe teachers could pick the word play as our word each year 🙂

      Oh you resourceful one you! I used to just sort on the table around my puzzle — the cookie sheets are a fab idea!!! The bins are handy when I want to be puzzling and baking, lol. Have a lovely day!


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