Puzzle Play Helps Boost Math Skills 

Children who play with puzzles between ages 2 and 4 later develop better spatial skills, a study by University of Chicago researchers has found. Puzzle play was found to be a significant predictor of spatial skill after controlling for differences in parents’ income, education and the overall amount of parent language input.

In examining video recordings of parents interacting with children during everyday activities at home, researchers found children who play with puzzles between 26 and 46 months of age have better spatial skills when assessed at 54 months of age. “The children who played with puzzles performed better than those who did not, on tasks that assessed their ability to rotate and translate shapes,” said psychologist Susan Levine, a leading expert on mathematics development in young children.

The ability to mentally transform shapes is an important predictor of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) course-taking, degrees and careers in older children. Activities such as early puzzle play may lay the groundwork for the development of this ability, the study found.

Levine, the Stella M. Rowley Professor in Psychology at UChicago, is lead author on a paper, “Early Puzzle Play: A Predictor of Preschoolers’ Spatial Transformation Skill,” published in Developmental Science.

The study is the first to look at puzzle play in a naturalistic setting. For the research, 53 child-parent pairs from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds participated in a longitudinal study, in which researchers video-recorded parent-child interactions for 90-minute sessions that occurred every four months between 26 and 46 months of age. 

Gender Differences

The parents were asked to interact with their children as they normally would, and about half of the children in the study were observed playing with puzzles at least once. Higher-income parents tended to engage children with puzzles more frequently. Both boys and girls who played with puzzles had better spatial skills, but boys played with more complicated puzzles than girls, and the parents of boys provided more spatial language during puzzle play and were more engaged in play than the parents of girls. Boys also performed better than girls on a mental transformation task given at 54 months of age.

“Further study is needed to determine if the puzzle play and the language children hear about spatial concepts is causally related to the development of spatial skills — and to examine why there is a sex difference in the difficulty of the puzzles played with and in the parents’ interactions with boys and girls,” Levine explained. “We are currently conducting a laboratory study in which parents are asked to play with puzzles with their preschool sons and daughters, and the same puzzles are provided to all participants. 

“We want to see whether parents provide the same input to boys and girls when the puzzles are of the same difficulty,” Levine said. “In the naturalistic study, parents of boys may have used more spatial language in order to scaffold their performance.”   

Alternatively, the difference in parent spatial language and engagement may be related to a societal stereotype that males have better spatial skills. “Our findings suggest that engaging both boys and girls in puzzle play can support the development of an aspect of cognition that has been implicated in success in the STEM disciplines,” Levine said.

StepUp Note

This research talks about the ability of children to mentally rotate and transform shapes. In daily living, we use this skill to decide if a toy will fit in a certain size of box, or if left-over spaghetti will fit into a certain storage container. The ability to mentally manipulate shapes is an important predictor of a child’s future educational preference for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses and careers.


In everyday living, there are activities that a child can do which involve “puzzle-type” logic and thinking skills.  Examples include:

  • Age 2 - nesting blocks that can be built into a tower or nested together by size.

  • Age 3 - Sorting and putting away the clean silverware from the dishwasher.

  • Age 4 - Putting away the clean dishes from the dishwasher, sorting and matching plates and bowls of different sizes.

  • Age 5 - Folding laundry, especially small towels and small items of clothing.

In the StepUp program, children are expected to mentally rotate and transform their body posture to match the exercise model on the screen. With time and practice, we see children make measurable progress in their ability to jump into a new movement pattern and successfully match the model. In my office, I see that children who do better with movement matching are also more attracted to puzzles, and have more purposeful problem-solving strategies. StepUp's cloud-based programs enrich any PreK - Grade 2 curriculum. Try it free for 30 days! 

Note by Nancy W Rowe M.S., CCC/A

Reposted from University of Chicago