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Academic Minute

Dr. Susan Levine, University of Chicago – Puzzles and Cognitive Development

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Susan Levine of the University of Chicago reveals the long-term advantages of playing with puzzles at an early age.

Susan Levine is a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago where she also serves as chair of the developmental psychology program. Her research lab examines how variations in home and school input affect the cognitive development of children, including language, spatial and mathematical skills. She holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

About Dr. Levine

Dr. Susan Levine – Puzzles and Cognitive Development

Maybe this has happened to you.  A toddler you know or are caring for reaches for a puzzle and the two of you enjoy putting it together. You might suggest that she look for a corner piece, or put the straight lines together.  Suddenly, an image of a bird or a farm animal shows up, and the puzzle pieces fly into place as the curved edges meet.
Did you know that enjoyable activity actually is a serious piece of work for the toddler?  That’s what we found in our early childhood research at the University of Chicago.  Children who play with puzzles developed a better understanding of spatial relationships—how things fit together and how shapes can be moved to make new images.  

We found this out when we videotaped children interacting with their parents in everyday activities.  We didn’t tell the parents what to do, just told them play and talk with their children the way they would if we weren’t there.  Some of them played puzzles and some of them didn’t. When we tested the children later, we found that those who played with puzzles between the ages of two and four were much better prepared when they entered kindergarten with good spatial skills.  That gives them a leg up on later learning for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, what we call the STEM disciplines.

We also found that just talking to children about shapes helps them grasp spatial ideas and learn the number line as well.  They could gain as much as a 20 percent increase in their mathematics understanding just by hearing and then producing the spatial words they heard. So, have fun with playing puzzles with that toddler. You can get them ready for school at the same time.

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