Chapter Two - Puzzling.2

Parenting for an Age of Information

Chapter Three - Puzzling (continued)

2. Stringing Necklaces

An understanding of patterns and structure is basic to good puzzling. One especially good foundation for such thinking is the actual stringing of beads on strings in various patterns. Instead of leaving your child to random stringing, introduce a pattern game in which each player creates a string with a repeated pattern of beads in various shapes and colors, allows the other person a minute or so to memorize the pattern and then hides the model while the other player attempts to recreate the pattern. You may begin with very simple patterns and large beads for the very young child, alternating between two colors, for example, but you may proceed with increasingly complex patterns with advancing age and skill, moving up to 16 and 20 item patterns which require recognition of key attributes and considerable memory skill.

As with the attribute skills mentioned earlier in this chapter, the replication of patterns, both numerical and symbolic, are subtests on many intelligence and aptitude tests. The tasks require the ability to analyze complex relationships quickly. Performance can be enhanced through practice and discussion of strategies.

The stringing of necklaces is analogous to the composition process required for the development of music and writing. Musicians and writers learn to string notes or words together in interesting patterns which combine structure and meaning. Editing of either music or writing involves the modification of those "strings" of notes and words, inventing new versions by substituting, combining, adjusting, modifying, eliminating and reversing elements. Long before a child gains fluency and flexibility in either of these complex tasks, a firm underpinning may be laid through the concrete task of moving beads around on a string. "How many different ways can you change the pattern of this necklace without adding any beads?"

Block play holds some of the same promise to strengthen puzzling skills. Frank Lloyd Wright attributes some of his inventive thinking to the time he spent playing with blocks with the thoughtful support and encouragement of his mother during his early years. Purposeful arrangements of blocks require thought about balance, proportion, harmony and juxtaposition. The child learns to test out variations on themes in repeating patterns throughout a structure. The child learns to experiment with alternatives until the puzzle is solved.

The question of how much parent involvement is desirable requires good judgment. The extreme picture of a parent dominating a young toddler's play is an unpleasant stereotype, but one which must be kept firmly in mind. The goal is to add spice to the play, elevating consciousness and introducing levels of thinking and challenge which the child might not discover independently, but the greatest proportion of time should be play without parent involvement. The child explores and applies, extends and elaborates. You can keep the reflection high if you ask for tours of the structures your child builds. One time, pretend to be a fellow builder, another time, a client, and yet another time, a child who wants to play in the structure. As you tour, ask questions, "What were you thinking about when you did this?" or "What is this for?" Ask about the puzzling your child did as he or she constructed the masterpiece.

Stringing necklaces can result in pattern-building, puzzling and invention. Whether the beads are round and wooden, carefully chosen words or moves in a game, you can provide your child with a chance to struggle with ambiguity, face a challenge and enjoy it through puzzles. You will be preparing them to look for patterns and connections to fit disparate elements together. This life skill will serve them well intellectually as well as interpersonally.

3. Introduce Games of Strategy

Board games such as checkers and chess elevate puzzling and connecting skills several levels by introducing the need for forecasting and strategizing based upon interpretation of the patterns lying on the board. A strong player looks ahead several moves - perhaps as many as a dozen - and tries to see what is coming, tries to anticipate the moves and counter moves of an opponent. This kind of thinking requires careful generation and evaluation of multiple options - a basic foundation for problem-solving.

As with block play, the parent may help the child understand these extra dimensions of play by articulating the strategic process aloud. Let your daughter or son hear your thinking process. Take the time to simulate various combinations of moves. As with the "what if" activities outlined in the chapter on invention, this is an opportunity to show how to anticipate the consequences of various strategies, to assess the relative merits of choices. The physical patterns on the checkerboard have tremendous symbolic significance which the young child must learn to interpret. What is the significance? What follows?

The task of interpretation has a strong human element. The pattern of checker pieces is a reflection of the other player's strategy. The child learns to "read" the intentions of the other player by watching the evolving pattern and asking, "What is she/he trying to do here? What's coming next? Is there a trap here some place? What does she/he want me to do?"

The chapter on empathy (in process) substantiates the importance of understanding the motives, the needs and the patterns of other people in this global village. It promises to throw us together with many people from different cultures and backgrounds during the course of our lives and careers. Games of strategy lay the foundation for the kinds of thinking which will support effective relationships and transactions with partners, opponents and strangers. The child learns early that success in the game of life often depends upon understanding of other people - their tendencies, habits, preferences and inclinations.

As the child grows older and more skilled, it is possible to move on to increasingly complex and demanding board games such as chess or to card games such as bridge or poker which add new dimensions to the challenge of developing strategies. In poker the young adolescent learns that things are not necessarily what they seem to be as players indulge in bluffing or sit passively with poker faces even as they hold winning hands. Poker teaches risk management as one figures the odds of drawing certain cards and the costs of remaining in the game. "You've got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them," is advice to cover countless adult quandaries far from the card table. "Don't throw good money after bad," applies as well to the business person worrying about a poor investment as it does to a poker player who sits with poor cards.

In contrast to these human intensive games, many computer games offer children strategic practice which is solitary. While requiring astute reasoning, the child cannot see or meet an opponent. The computer mind is opaque. These games provide little practice in the skill of "sizing up" another player. One cannot learn to read the anxious body language of a personal computer. Computers are remarkably passive and unemotional even during the most trying circumstances.

The game playing mentioned in this section is only a small sampling of the many opportunities which can develop strategic reasoning. Field hockey, basketball and soccer all offer similar opportunities to interpret patterns and size up opponents. They also introduce the extra dimensions of team work and communication which are discussed in considerable depth in the chapter on cooperation. How does one develop strategies in a group under such enormous time pressure when one cannot even discuss them with teammates? What is the importance of "plays" memorized and practiced ahead of the game? How does a team decide which plays to use when and with what modifications?

The goal of all these game activities is to help your son or daughter develop a "systems approach" to strategy making, moving from the interpretation of data through the evaluation and implementation of plans. This approach requires an understanding of the many different variables involved in a particular situation and how they are related. Success depends upon the ability to see the "big picture," how all the parts work together in a system. As a systems analyst and developer, your child will be equipped to invent new approaches to meet the unidentified challenges of the future.

4. Emphasize Observation, Recording and Interpretation

Many people move through life without really noticing the colors, patterns and events swirling about them. Ask a group of kindergarten children the color of the sky and they will invariably say "blue" until asked repeatedly. Suddenly one child will pipe up with "orange stripes" or "grey." We are so often accustomed to living without observing carefully. As the chapter on visualizing points out, the ability to analyze visual data is critically important during the Information Age since more than half of what we learn probably comes to us visually.

Parents can fine tune their children's observation skills by setting a good example on car trips and during walks. The process may begin with casual references like "Look at that mountain!" or "Look at that ant caught on the leaf floating in that puddle," but the habit can lead to increasingly complex observations as the children develop, "What do you suppose caused that mesa to develop there?" or "What clues can you find that will help us figure out how to get on Highway 64?" As with all of the puzzling mentioned in this chapter, the goal is to take the fragments of data or the details and convert them into something more meaningful, to change them into information and insight. The parent can urge the child to look for patterns and relationships by using good questions.

"Why do you suppose that big puddle has formed here?"

"What's going on here?"

"What do you think about that?"

"Notice anything unusual here?"

As the child grows skillful, the parent can introduce long range collection and recording of data, eventually encouraging written and systematic observations and drawings in a journal or notebook. Reading from abridged versions of naturalists' journals might provide a good model of ways to describe the changing of a pond or a forest through the seasons. The child can learn to measure and record depths, sizes and colors. Samples of stream water may be collected from different points and then taken home for analysis.

"What's in it?"

"Why is there more fecal material in the stream at Point C than at Point A or Point B?"

"How has the fecal content changed since last summer?"

"Would you drink this water or swim in this stream?"

The child quickly learns once again that not everything is what it seems to be, just as she/he learned in poker. Some puzzle pieces wear disguises. Sometimes there is important information just below the surface requiring the observer to probe with special tools or instruments. The child also learns the power of collecting data over time. What seems to the naked eye to be a simple little stream running through a suburban subdivision and a farm becomes something far more complex as the magic of chemistry and microscopy transform the data into a different picture. The casual observer may miss important information which may ultimately prove life-threatening or life-protecting.

Chapter Three - Puzzling (continued)

©1991 JMcKenzie

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