Jigsaw Puzzles

Jigsaws are so familiar and superficially so simple in principle that it is easy not to look at them carefully enough to see what skills they encourage and what information a child gains from them. Designing puzzles is one of the areas which has received a great deal of attention from designers and manufacturers and what money there is to spend on them can usually be spent to good effect.

There are a series of main categories which provide for increasing difficulty and which encourage different skills and concepts. Early geometric form boards and tray jigsaws provide one hole for each separate piece – there is no interlocking factor – and the activity is self-correcting. If a child tries to fit a piece in the wrong hole it will not go in and therefore another hole must be tried. With experience children start to look at the piece then at the hole before trying to fit, which is a step forward. Similar puzzles may have a series of the same shape pieces in graded sizes. The right size piece for the right size hole has to be found, first by trial and error and later by thinking, looking and com-paring. Other puzzles produce mirror-image pieces which is another valuable exercise. Some of the tray jigsaws give infor-mation. The lift-out shapes of perhaps houses or vehicles cover a base picture of what may be found inside.

The next stage is tray puzzles where the separate pieces complete one picture but each piece is different from the next. The shaped tray is an outline of the object so children know what it will be when finished. Further tray puzzles will have non-interlocking pieces which have to be matched to complete several objects within the main picture. Thus children are required to match colour, recognize parts of objects, think what part of a particular shape is missing and then find it from pieces which contain many other parts of shapes. All puzzles, even the earliest ones, teach that every piece has a right way up and a wrong way up but these, as parts of a shape, look even more odd when seen the wrong way than a whole shape.

One variation which the majority of ranges of puzzle lack is a rather more difficult one consisting of one picture cut into pieces exactly the same shape and size so that the shape of the piece gives no clue as to where it should fit. Fortunately these are simple to make by mounting a suitable picture card (some stationers sell outsize postcards which have good, clear, simple pictures) on a piece of good quality board and using a heavy-duty guillotine to cut square or rectangular shapes.

Degree of difficulty can be further extended by producing puzzles with more pieces or a more complicated picture. The simplest interlocking puzzles may have twelve pieces. A thirty-piece one is probably as much as a five-year-old will achieve, although some children of five can complete a much more difficult and time-consuming one. There is room in every collection / for a simple picture cut into more pieces and a complicated picture cut into less pieces than usual to encourage children at both ends of the ability range.

One of the functions of the adult is to realize when a child is having constant failures because the puzzles he chooses are beyond his ability and to offer him a different one. The question often arises of whether or not we should help him more overtly than this by doing the puzzle with him. Should we suggest that pieces with straight edges or corners will have a special position in the finished puzzle? Do we suggest a focal point for starting: ‘Here is a teddy bear’s head, now let’s look for a piece with his body on’? Is it interfering to quietly push the next piece he needs under his nose the right way up so that he cannot help but pick it up? The answer is that children vary and so must our approach. Some children not only do not need help, they actually resent it. Some children need just a little help to get them over the first stage of completing one puzzle, to give them the confidence to go to another. Others rely on adult help every time, not least because they appear to enjoy this kind of attention. Some children will never be able to do puzzles unless we give them some easily-remembered technique guide-lines. Others will not want to do jigsaw puzzles at all – ever. It is just not their’ thing’.

Apart from the commonsense approach of providing for every stage of interest and ability one can help any child by at least making it physically easy to work with his material. Enough space to set out all the pieces so that he can see them, a suitable size tray to help control the early stages of completion, opportunity to walk away and have a ‘breather’ then return and do a little more helps any child. A comfortable chair and the right height table, an easily accessible space in which to keep puzzles not in use make a difference to how long a child can and will concentrate. The early tray jigsaws which are a two-layer construction, the bottom layer being the base board, the top layer being the design which lifts out plus the edge into which it will fit, provides its own control factor. Puzzles which are totally cut into pieces need a tray in which they can be completed. These should be just slightly larger than the puzzle to allow ease for lifting out and manoeuvring pieces. These can be bought but are very expensive for what they are and they only come in standard sizes. They can be made at home so cheaply, quickly and to any size that it is surprising there is any commercial market for them.

The basis of such trays is hardboard cut to a size which allows for the width of the beading used for the edges plus a quarter of an inch for ease of handling plus the actual size of the puzzle. Any roughness from sawing to size should be filed or sandpapered smooth. The best beading for jigsaw-puzzle trays is £-inch square as this cuts more economically than quarter-round beading and one is less likely to make mistakes in mitreing the ends. Mitred corners cut with a mitre-board are very simple to do. Non-impact wood adhesive or PVA glue is best for sticking the frame to the base to allow for correcting any misalignment. If the comers look a little clumsy they can be sanded. If the first attempt results in corners with a small gap you can fill this with plastic wood, rub it down with sandpaper when set hard, paint the raised edges and try harder when cutting the next set of edge pieces. Depending on the thickness of the beading used, it is possible to make deeper trays in the same way to hold matching games, construction sets, beads and other small items which can be such a nuisance when loose on a table. On the grounds that every tiny amount of noise that can be avoided helps to reduce the total noise, it is a good idea to glue a felt or thin plastic foam sheet base to the underside of any tray. It also helps to prevent scratches where this is important. A method which avoids having to mitre corners is to use self-adhesive foam draught-excluder strip which can be cut with scissors. After sticking it on, it needs to be impregnated with PVA glue. This involves several applications, making sure the foam is really soaked all through each time. If each successive coat of glue is allowed to nearly dry out before the next is put on it will take about forty-eight hours to get a bone-hard finish which withstands virtually any treatment. The last layer of glue can be mixed with powder paint to colour the edge if desired. Either of these methods can be used for making sectioned trays.

Though there are a good many different jigsaw puzzles to buy within each stage of difficulty it is not always possible to have enough at any one stage. To have just five at ten different levels would give a total stock of fifty. Yet a child at any one stage can be heartily tired of these five and may even do an easier one upside down just for a change before he is able to meet the challenge of the next set. Rather than push him too far by letting him constantly fail with material too difficult for him, or spending yet more money on puzzles, it is better to produce some of the other matching and grading games which demand the same perceptual skills and abilities and yet provide variety.