Chapter Two - Puzzling.1

Parenting for an Age of Information

Chapter Three - Puzzling

We live in a puzzling world. It is almost as if someone shakes up the puzzle pieces on a daily or weekly basis, strewing the fragments out across the world's living room floor to see if we can make sense out of all the seemingly disconnected pieces.

Unlike those long rainy days on summer vacations during our own childhoods, there is no picture on the box of this puzzle to guide us. There is no straight edge along the sides to give us clues. There is no limit to the number of pieces, and they do not all lie flat or even fit together. Sometimes we must bend and hammer and tease the pieces to help them into a meaningful pattern.

This puzzle will keep us busy for a life time and will continue to challenge philosophers, pundits and commentators for centuries to come. Puzzling out the meaning of life - bringing order to chaos - is a major part of our life's work, and showing our children how to manage the often confusing process is a major responsibility of parenting. Good puzzling skills produce insight and the capacity to discern the true nature of a situation. The good puzzler can penetrate the fog, the confusion, the distortion, the mountains of data and the propaganda of modern life to catch an elucidating glimpse of reality.

Why is puzzling so important to your child?

Our rapidly changing world offers up a steady diet of chaos and fragmentation. The frameworks, customs and traditions that served for generations now bend, shake and sometimes even collapse under the pressures of change. The shift in the economy to employ both parents of most school aged children and the related alteration of family systems is but one example of major transformation. Many of these changes take place gradually and subtly while others may hit like a thunder squall. In any case, we need to manage such changes consciously and thoughtfully, employing the questioning, inventing and cooperating skills described earlier in this book to develop effective coping strategies.

Our children will weather these storms of life and will skillfully manage the transitions accompanying vast social changes if we teach them how to search through fragments and puzzle things out. Parents may equip daughters and sons to be observant, to occupy a crow's nest throughout life, an elevated perspective from which they may keep an eye on the horizon to navigate and make wise choices. As they scan the horizon, they must know how to interpret the details or fragments of information, converting the color, the size, the shape and the movement of the clouds into a forecast of approaching weather.

According to Toffler, power and influence will flow during the Information Age to those who are skilled at converting data - seemingly disconnected fragments - into information and then knowledge. The process requires pattern identification. The observer or analyst must know how to identify relationships and connections, transforming the swirl of data into trends, cause-and-effect associations, and general laws or principles.

Our workforce has split into two groups: service workers and "symbolic analysts." The nation's bounty flows generously to the second group. Reich comments that, "Most of their jobs consist of analyzing and manipulating symbols - words, numbers or visual images." He points out that this kind of thinking is in high demand by a world economy which stresses problem identification and problem-solving.

The argument for puzzling as an essential skill rests on much more than power, influence and career implications. Mental health may also depend upon this crow's nest perspective. The turbulence and uncertainty of a rapidly changing society can produce emotional upheaval if individuals see themselves as powerless and victimized by forces outside their control. Instead of investing in coping strategies, these individuals may turn to other ways of coping such as substance abuse to dull the sharp edges of life and make the puzzle pieces seem to fit together. They may find themselves struggling with bouts of depression as life appears to have little meaning. Even the affluent may wrestle with angst, anomie, anxiety and alienation flowing from the sense that social structures have collapsed and left them an existence without meaning.

In order to thrive, young people must learn how to make meaning out of chaos, drawing connections between seemingly disconnected ideas and events. In school they will too often encounter neat little packages explaining such chaotic events as the beginning of the Civil War in a few concise paragraphs. They will learn a law of science and then "discover" the law in a canned laboratory "experiment." Rarely will students make meaning by studying fragments and putting puzzles together for themselves. Since they are usually shown the whole picture before they may start working on the puzzle, they rarely experience puzzling it out. Puzzle aficionados would consider looking at the picture a form of cheating, and so must we.

Because the future will be filled with puzzles, our children must also learn how to maintain human connections in an increasingly alienating society. Like jig-saw puzzles, communities are difficult to hold or put together, yet the skills of community building are central to the survival of civilization. How many months can a friendship subsist on tape-recorded messages? How many months can a family survive on silent microwave meals consumed in separate rooms before separate television screens?

As with all of the other skills identified in this book, parents are in a particularly strong position to influence the growth of competence in their sons and daughters by providing a rich diet of experiences and opportunities. We need not wait for rainy summer days to make puzzles and puzzling an important part of childhood.


As mentioned in the chapter on questioning, life presents us with an endless supply of anomalies, paradoxes, dilemmas, predicaments and quandaries to perplex, bewilder, astonish and intrigue us. That chapter suggested ways of using those puzzles to sharpen questioning skills and keep a sense of wonder alive. This chapter builds upon the puzzle finding skills mentioned in Chapter One by emphasizing the making of meaning and the development of insight - the conversion of data into information, knowledge and understanding. Once the puzzle is identified, the task of identifying patterns and relationships becomes paramount.

1. Fill the Toy Chest with Puzzles

The proper selection of toys, games and play material has been stressed throughout this book. Seek items which invite active participation and thought from the child as opposed to those mechanized marvels which do all the work, make all of the sounds and put the imagination to sleep.

From the earliest months of your daughter or son's life, make physical puzzles available, whether it be the simple square-peg-in-square-hole workbench or a picture of farm animals which allows the child to fit each animal where it belongs. As the skill level increases, the number of pieces and the complexity of the design may increase until the elementary school aged child is joining you in 1000 piece puzzles that require half a day or more of family effort.

While these physical puzzles may eventually be augmented by puzzles of other kinds - the paradoxes and quandaries which jump out of young adult fiction, the front page of the newspaper and life itself - it is important to start with concrete references which will serve as a strong foundation for later puzzling of a more figurative nature. Visual references established early in life with physical puzzles will some day assist with the solution of puzzles of metaphorical substance.

Get down on the floor and join in the play. Teach strategies and tactics. Call upon your own childhood tricks. If the toddler is trying to fit the farm animals where they belong, show how to turn the animals upright. Point out key shapes in the outline. Help your child recognize the reciprocal shape. Show the importance of size. "How big is the empty space? Which animal might be that big?" Playful discussion teaches important characteristics (size, color, shape) and relationships (reciprocal, complimentary, mirror images, scaling).

As the puzzles become more complex, so do the relationships which provide clues. An early strategy might be to seek recognizable objects or items in the final picture, each of which might attract its own pile of puzzle pieces associated by common colors, lines and shapes. Instead of trying to match each piece with every other piece, the puzzler can concentrate on the much smaller pile of associated pieces.

You are providing early training in identification of attributes - the elements which define the uniqueness of something. The ability to identify attributes will serve as a foundation for analogical reasoning, a fundamental reasoning skill comprising a major portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

When asked to complete the analogy, "SCALPEL is to SURGEON as ______ is to TEACHER," the child begins by asking what attributes the main pair have in common. Highly skilled in searches after years of puzzles, the young adolescent searches for more than one attribute, more than one relationship. Thus, when confronted with the following multiple choices, the puzzler realizes the answer must be a sharp tool of some kind which is used to cut below the surface to explore or repair something.





While all four answers are tools a teacher might employ, QUESTION is the only answer with the correctly matching attributes of sharpness and cutting below the surface for exploration.

In a similar fashion, the ability to notice what is missing from a picture represents a major component of some intelligence tests. Puzzling enhances performance on both scales.

As the child grows older and the puzzles become more complex, the emphasis upon strategy should expand and a greater percentage of the puzzles should be games. Checkers is a fine proving ground for puzzlers as the game combines an array of pieces whose positions relative to each other have great strategic importance. The child must learn that each of the pieces may be tied or associated in some significant way to other pieces and that moves must be made with full awareness of those relationships. In addition, he or she learns that it pays to look ahead and test out the likely consequences of various moves.

In some respects, playing checkers is an early introduction to algebra as it requires children to test out various equations, variables and relationships. While staring at the checker board and considering various moves, the child is posing "What if?" questions, hypothesizing and theorizing about outcomes.

There are dozens of great games which help to teach strategy, games which require your son or daughter to calculate the odds of various events and develop plans to confound an opponent, but there are also dozens of games which rely almost entirely upon chance. Here is a parental opportunity to steer selection in a different direction. If the outcomes rely solely upon the spinning of a pointer or the rolling of some dice, there is much less to be learned. These games are too much like the lives of the alienated citizens mentioned early in this chapter who cannot make their own meaning from life and spend their days cursing their fate or waiting for the lottery to hit.

Scrabble, Monopoly, poker, chess, backgammon, and many other games provide an ample diet of puzzling games which sharpen the wits and prepare your child for a chaotic world. The important thing is to involve yourself in playing such games with your child with some frequency so that you can encourage a reflective or strategic mode of thought.

But what if you find yourself always winning? How much fun can it be if your child is always overpowered? Some adults honestly believe they should let their children win upon occasion so they will feel encouraged to keep playing. We would argue on behalf of authentic play with an emphasis upon the fun of wrestling together rather than a focus upon winning or losing. When we wrestled with our parents at the husky age of four or five, how many of us honestly expected to overpower or pin these huge people? We enjoyed the contest, knowing full well that we would lose. As long as the winning and losing is played down, the game becomes the important thing.

Chapter Three - Puzzling (continued)

©1991 JMcKenzie

Network 609