Problem Solving Skills I Learned from Jigsaw Puzzles

I have never been a fan of jigsaw puzzles…until recently.

Jigsaw puzzles always seemed like a waste of time.  You spend hours putting together an insanely complicated piece of artwork, some with mind-numbing solid coloring, repetitive imagery, and similarly shaped pieces, only to break up the finished work and put it back in a box. 

Not me. I have better uses of my time.  Satisfying an addiction to jigsaw puzzles sounds too much like being a willing accomplice to your own frustrations.

Then earlier this year, during our family vacation to Jekyll Island, one of my daughters brought a table-top size jigsaw puzzle of Jekyll Island and suggested we work on it together as a family.  In other words, let’s have a memory-making, treasure-forever bonding moment while we work together on a 1,000-piece puzzle.  Yikes. I didn’t say anything, not wanting to burst her excitement bubble, but I wondered sarcastically to myself, “Oh, joy. Frustration doesn’t come in a bottle, it comes in the form of a thousand pieces of odd-shaped colored cardboard.  This is gonna be fun. Yeah, right.” 

Now I have to confess to the world, was I ever wrong!

Over a period of about three days, everyone — almost all twenty of us — pitched in at one time or another to match the interlocking knob-shaped pieces into a picture of Georgia’s scenic coastal island that matched the image on the box.  One of my grandsons, age six, displayed remarkable skills at finding the right piece for the right spot.  My condescending arrogance soon evaporated (sounds better than humbled), and I too began to join in the fun.  I discovered a certain magic that surrounds a joint familial effort at responding to the challenge of a jigsaw puzzle. My daughter had not simply purchased a jigsaw puzzle. She had engendered an opportunity for casual informal conversation in a venue that kept young minds focused and engaged without benefit of any electronic technology.  This puzzling (pun intended) activity displayed a seductive, if not magnetic, appeal that drew family members together who wanted to contribute to the puzzle’s completion.  Either that or they just wanted to be sure the dining room table was cleared before dinner. Still, watching the puzzle slowly come together, I could not help but be impressed with the mental gymnastics and problem-solving skills required in this imagination-challenging family activity.

Then last week, while visiting that same jigsaw-loving daughter, I noticed she had another puzzle in progress on a side table.  Once again, her six-year-old son, full of energy and unending questions, would occasionally throttle down and contribute to solving the puzzle du jour.  This is the same six-year-old who can already read and has memorized all 45 Presidents. 

When my wife and I returned home, she broke out a recently purchased puzzle on one of our side tables and began the puzzle-solving process.  She didn’t say anything, but I had the distinct impression she thought this ought to be a two-person exercise.  Well, having been bitten by the jigsaw bug, I soon pulled up another chair and put my left brain in gear, all while trying to avoid noticing the smile on her face.  You know the smile, the one a fisherman gets when the fish bites the baited hook.

As we dove deeper and deeper into this new-found jigsaw mania, it occurred to me that putting a jigsaw puzzle together can also be a learning opportunity.  How so, you may ask?  Well,  here’s TheBuddyBlog.com‘s version of Problem Solving Skills I Learned from Jigsaw Puzzles.

  1. Clearly define the problem. Chaos can look intimidating.  Organizing it can seem daunting.  Look at the big picture.  How many pieces are in the puzzle?  What does it look like? It is impossible to solve a problem if you fail to define it.
  2. Where is the best place to conduct the problem-solving?  Puzzle-solving requires good lighting, free of glare, a surface large enough to hold the dimensions of the puzzle but easy enough for multiple people to gather and work together.  Does the work require privacy, or will the puzzle need to be moved later for dinner?  Consider using a foam board which can easily be relocated.  Bottom-line, environment matters, regardless of the problem being solved.
  3. Develop a strategy.  Planning saves time.  Developing a consistent approach works for puzzles as well as any problem-solving challenges.Begin with the boundaries.  Pull out the pieces that have those straight edges and build the outer limits of your puzzle.
    • Sort the pieces by color and patterns.  Sorting out tasks helps break down the big problem into smaller sets of issues and allows members of your team to work independently in the short term.
    • Grab the low-hanging fruit.  Not only does it provide encouragement with early successes, but it also makes it easier to identify harder-to-place pieces later.
    • Check the picture on the box often. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of colors and lines.  Refer back to the problem-statement (picture on the box) frequently to keep your focus on the challenge at hand.
  4. Work as a Team. Yes, jigsaw puzzles can be a one-person activity.  But it can be a lot more fun when done as a team. Plus, you can learn from others.  Take advantage of their perspectives. This is not a competition. You may need to stop working separately and jointly look at a part of the puzzle.
  5. Celebrate small successes.  Every puzzle ever solved was done piece by piece.  It takes time.  Persevere.  When you finally discover the place for that hard-to-find piece, or when you finish putting together the face of a lion, stop, celebrate the small victory, shout “Eureka!” and give each other a high five. 
  6. Take a break.  Working complicated projects can be frustrating.  Step away, clear the mind, come back with a fresh perspective. It is amazing how often coming back to the table with fresh eyes kick-starts the solving process again.   
  7. Look at the problem from all angles.  A fresh perspective sometimes means to look at the problem from different angles.  Turn your puzzle and look at it from top-down.  Turn the piece in your hands, are you sure it is oriented correctly.  Don’t be afraid to step back and take a fresh look.
  8. Don’t force-fit solutions.  Every piece is unique and different.  Every piece has a purpose.  Forcing a piece to fit never provides a complete or satisfactory solution.  Hmm, wonder if that works for people too?
  9. Once solved – Take Time to savor the results.  Don’t break up the pieces so fast.  Admire the handiwork.  Consider gluing it and framing it as a trophy to the hard work and recall a special memory.  If you do break it up, consider placing all the pieces in a zip-loc bag before putting it back in the box.  Doing so helps to avoid loss of pieces.  Consider placing the border pieces in a separate bag as a courtesy to the next person game enough to challenge the puzzle. 

The good news is that I am humble enough to admit my prejudice against odd-shaped pieces of cardboard and no longer view the silliness of fitting these pieces together as mere escapism from boredom.  There is growing evidence, if only anecdotal, that such exercises provide the brain a total-cranium workout — so to speak.  Solving a jigsaw puzzle enhances spatial skills, improves collaboration and cooperation, promotes memory retention and, quite possibly, serves as a tool, to reduce the chances of dementia.

Besides, there is something about creating order out of chaos that not only entertains you but stimulates your spirit.  This may be a stretch, but, as a Christian, working on jigsaw puzzles gives me a new appreciation for being “made in the image of God.”  If anything, I am reminded that there is a creative spark in all of us.  Don’t be afraid to let that spark find expression whether it be in writing, painting, decorating, problem-solving, or assembling those insanely challenging jigsaw puzzles.  Think of it like this, a puzzle is a lot like life.  It is a mystery in want of solving. Jigsaw puzzles remind me that there really is a big picture.  Sometimes, it just takes a while to see it. Enjoy the journey, be patient, and delight in discovering how profoundly satisfying it is when life’s pieces finally fit just as the Designer intended.


Note: Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

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  1. Leif Price

    This is a good read. Puzzles can teach us a lot especially in our way of handling problems.


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