The Puzzler

Puzzler 2

Guest Post from Emily Mullen, CCLS 

After breakfast on a rainy Sunday morning, I opened up a new toddler puzzle leftover from Christmas. My 2 ½ year old son was thrilled to see this new play item before him. He already understood the link-pieces-together concept of puzzles from watching me in the past and immediately zoned in with intent. His toddler instinct to imitate was in full force. With a smile on his face he used phrases like “oh this one goes here” and “oh maybe not” and “there it goes!” He picked up piece after piece linking them together, rotating them and moving them to new spots.

As I sat with him, in awe of his focus and determination, I decided to put “teaching” aside for the moment to let him work. I resisted the urge to reach for puzzle pieces, but gladly accepted those that he handed to me. I kept myself from offering suggestions or redirecting his behavior while he played. Instead, I described my observations of his play (“You found a spot for the frog piece!”) and made statements that reflected the content of his own comments (“You’re looking for a new spot for that one.”)

We soon found ourselves deep in the midst of a child-directed play session. He had the steering wheel, and I was enjoying the ride. After a short while he had his own finished product. With a smile from ear to ear he exclaimed, “Mom look! There’s there puzzle!”

A quick glance at the photograph below is enough to see that the arrangement of puzzle pieces did not match the product’s intended image. Yet my son applauded his efforts and walked away with an obvious sense of accomplishment. In this morning’s moments of toddler play, he decided the goal was simply giving each puzzle piece a home. (As he had previously observed the purpose of a puzzle to be!) He chose his goal, and directed his behavior accordingly. As a result, he left the play experience with increased confidence to face a challenge and practice in problem solving (for example, rotate a puzzle piece until it fit).

We will find many moments for “adult directed” learning experiences; my son has plenty of opportunity to follow instructions from me all day. On this Sunday morning, though, he learned important skills to apply to any future challenge – adult or child driven. So we ended our puzzle play and celebrated his way because as my son proclaimed, “ There’s the puzzle!”

Engaging in child-directed playtime can have great benefits for children’s development. As children grow they follow constant instructions from adults to guide their learning of basic skills (how to brush teeth, how to wash hands), basic knowledge (counting, colors, shapes) and basic cultural behavior (saying please and thank you, using indoor voices). Providing children with safe opportunities to be in control of play allows them time to think about how the world works, explore their own ideas, and experience self-discovery.

More About the Author:

Emily is a Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) and full-time mom to a wonderful 2 ½ year old boy. Her educational background includes a B.A. in Psychology from Stonehill College in Easton, MA and an M.S. in Therapeutic Recreation with a Child Life concentration from Springfield College in Springfield, MA . She worked full-time teaching Therapeutic Recreation and Child Life courses at Springfield College through the summer of 2012 when her son was born. She has recently returned to Springfield College as adjunct faculty. She additionally worked in the field as a CCLS at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, CT for 4 years.

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