Jigsaw puzzles: Will research crush my dream of Christmas family time?

When my husband asked me what I wished for Christmas this year, he was surprised to learn that I wanted a jigsaw puzzle. After all, I had carefully hidden my interest for jigsaw puzzles when I met him. Living with a cat and solving jigsaw puzzles was probably too much of an old spinster combination, I thought at the time. But now things are different. We have kids and hence a wonderful excuse to relive the best parts of our childhoods. So I wanted a big jigsaw puzzle, at least a thousand pieces, to be left on the kitchen breakfast bar during the whole holiday season. People would stop by and casually place a few pieces while chattering over cups of hot chocolate, and this would last for at least two weeks.

I did receive a beautiful big puzzle, but as it turned out, it was solved in less than twenty-four hours, because everybody got hooked, from children to aunts and grandparents. Despite the frustration that two pieces went missing in the process (possibly a side-effect of having a toddler around who is willing to reorganize the house), we were extremely proud of ourselves. Was this a pure waste of time? Or are there some benefits in solving jigsaw puzzles? I dug into the scientific literature to find out what research has to say about this. While some of my common sense ideas were confirmed, other proved slightly wrong. Here is what I found.

Jigsaw puzzles and spatial skills

The first question is whether jigsaw puzzles help improve spatial skills. Spatial skills are the ones you need to correctly assemble flat-pack furniture, successfully fit seven suitcases and the dog crate in your car trunk, or copilot without turning the map upside down. Many women think that they are genetically disfavored in this domain and that spatial skills must be encoded somewhere on the Y chromosome. But recent research brings the following good news: (i) culture and society may actually play a bigger role than genetic background in causing a gender gap in spatial skills (Hoffman et al. 2011), and (ii) spatial skills are “teachable” (Uttal et al 2013). This not only means that we can improve ourselves. It also implies that as parents, we can foster the development of the spatial abilities of our children. Given the key role of spatial skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, it is worth a try.

The children who were observed playing with puzzles performed better on the spatial task than those who did not

Could we help our children develop their spatial skills by encouraging them to play with jigsaw puzzles? To test whether puzzle play correlates with spatial skills, Levine and coworkers, from University of Chicago, studied 53 children (27 boys, 26 girls, from the Chicago metropolitan area) during six home visits that occurred between 26 and 46 months of age. At each visit, children were videotaped for one and a half hours, engaging in their normal activities. Parents were asked to spend their time as they ordinarily would. When children were 4 years and a half, they were asked to perform a spatial transformation task. The researchers found that approximately half of the children in their sample played with a puzzle at least once during the six observation sessions. The children who were observed playing with puzzles performed better on the spatial task than those who did not, controlling for parent education, income, and parent vocabulary. Moreover, among the children who played with puzzles, more frequent puzzle play was associated to higher score at the spatial transformation task (Levine et al. 2012).

We should keep in mind, however, that correlation does not imply causation. Strictly speaking, the study does not prove that puzzle play improves spatial skills. It could very well be the reverse, namely that children with higher spatial skills tend to play more frequently with puzzles. Or it could be another unknown parameter that incidentally causes both puzzle play frequency and spatial score to be high.

One argument for the hoped-for causation (puzzle play improves spatial skills) is that puzzle play involves both mentally and physically translating and rotating pieces, and provides instant feedback as to whether a piece fits or not, thereby allowing the child to assess the correctness of her mental transformations. Another argument is that puzzle play may increase children’s exposure to spatial language. Indeed, when guiding children’s efforts, parents frequently use terms to describe the dimensions, features and shapes of objects (“long”, “short”, “corner”, “edge”, “straight”, “curve”), to suggest orientation and transformations (“upside-down”, “sideways”, “turn”, “flip”) and to talk about location and direction (“top”, “under”, “between”, “inside”, “outside”, “right”, and “left”) (Levine et al. 2012).

Traditional or digital?

Assuming that puzzle play has a positive impact on spatial skills, should we buy traditional puzzles (made of cardboard or wood), or install jigsaw puzzle applications on our computers or tablets? Alissa Antle, Lesley Xie and coworkers, from Simon Fraser University (British Columbia, Canada), compared both options with 132 children aged 7 to 10 years old (69 boys and 63 girls) from the regular visitor population of an interactive science museum in Vancouver. They used a traditional cardboard jigsaw puzzle as well as the same jigsaw puzzle implemented on a mouse-based computer game. Children were arbitrarily grouped into pairs, and pairs were assigned to one puzzle version without any preference. Each pair was told they would have 15 minutes to play with the puzzle, and that they could stop playing the puzzle at any time and instead move to an area with benches, pillows and a collection of popular children’s books. The session was videotaped and ended with a closing interview in which the children were asked about their impression of the puzzle.

While 91% of the children pairs working with the traditional puzzle completed the puzzle at least once, only 52% of the pairs working with the computer version managed to do so

The traditional and the digital versions seem to be equally fun, as children’s self-reports of enjoyment were similar for both styles (Xie et al, 2008). However, children took longer and had more difficulty completing puzzles on the computer. While 91% of the children pairs working with the traditional puzzle completed the puzzle at least once, only 52% of the pairs working with the computer version managed to do so (Antle et al, 2009). The other pairs either quit or ran out of time. For the pairs who did complete the puzzle, the time to first completion was shorter with the traditional version (10:32 minutes) than with the digital version (13:12 minutes).

The way the puzzle was solved also differed across conditions. Children using the digital version mostly used a trial and error strategy where they repeatedly compared each piece to the digital puzzle throughout the whole session. The task never got easier and so a direct placement strategy could not be used even near the end of sessions. Children using the traditional version did use the trial-and-error strategy at the beginning of the session, but then tended to follow a pattern of exploratory actions (e.g., organize puzzle pieces into groups containing corner pieces, edge pieces, or pieces of the same color or shape) followed by direct placements (Antle et al 2009). The latter strategy suggests that children have built a mental model of the task, a level that apparently they could not reach as easily with the digital version. Moreover, children were much more active in terms of body movement with the traditional version. For example, some children moved themselves around the table rather than moving the puzzle pieces (Xie et al 2008). This form of perspective taking was not possible with the computer. Overall, this study suggests that physical manipulation and body movement could be key in evolving from the rather ineffective trial-and-error strategy to mental problem solving.

So traditional puzzles seem to a better option than a computer to support the development of spatial skills (although it would have been interesting to test what would have happened with a tablet rather than a mouse-based computer). Good news, because my daughter and I find it so fun to plunge our hands in the sea of small cardboard pieces when we start a new big puzzle!

Moreover, I thought that the traditional puzzles lend themselves more naturally to collaborative solving than the digital ones, as several children can concentrate different areas of the picture. Therefore I thought that traditional jigsaw puzzles were excellent games to promote collaboration and social interactions. Well, it turned out that this is not so simple.

Jigsaw puzzles, collaboration and social interactions

In terms of efficiency, it is not clear that working in parallel on a puzzle will actually allow for twice-faster solving. In the study of Antle and coworkers described above, pairs of children using the traditional puzzle did not complete the puzzle twice as fast as those using the single-mouse computer (remember, 10:32 minutes versus 13:12 minutes). This is not a specificity of children. In 1940, Richard Husband from University of Wisconsin compared the performance of his undergraduate students when working in pairs or alone on a jigsaw puzzle (40 pairs of students versus 40 students working alone). Pairs did solve the jigsaw puzzle faster than students working alone, but not twice as fast: 12 minutes versus 17 minutes (Husband 1940).

Several pairs of hands solving a jigsaw puzzle

Several pairs of hands solving a jigsaw puzzle

OK, so working together on a jigsaw puzzle does speed up the solving process, but not as much as we could have hoped for. But efficiency is not the only aspect of collaboration. Social interactions are another important aspect, so maybe solving puzzles together helps develop social interactions?

Actually, children spent more time communicating, verbally and through gesture, with the computer-based puzzle than with the traditional cardboard puzzle

Well, it appears that children working together on a traditional puzzle do not really work “together” but rather in parallel, quite independently. In the study by Antle, Xie and coworkers, most children pairs solved the traditional puzzle using parallel, independent play. They seemed to be absorbed in their own activity but they still observed each other’s actions and expressions and often copied them (Xie et al 2008). Despite the single mouse, pairs of children using the computer-based puzzle managed to collaborate with each other, often by taking sequential turns. If one child took a dominant or directive role, the other child often found other ways to participate, such as pointing at the screen or giving verbal suggestions to his/her partner. Actually, children spent more time communicating, verbally and through gesture, with the computer-based puzzle than with the traditional cardboard puzzle (Antle et al 2009).

These results corroborate much earlier ones, obtained in 1985 by researchers from the University of Minnesota and University of Michigan, Alexandra Muller and Marion Perlmutter. They studied 18 children (8 boys and 10 girls) from the University of Minnesota Child Care Center, aged 3 and a half to 5. They observed the children’s behavior over 5 weeks, during 15 one-and-a-half-hour free-play sessions with either a traditional jigsaw puzzle or a computer (an Apple II computer with 48k memory!) where alphabet games, number games, and memory matching games were available. The children could play either alone or in groups of two. They were also allowed to decide on their own how long they played.

It turned out that they worked with a peer only 7% of the time they were at the puzzle, in contrast to 63% at the computer (Muller and Perlmutter, 1985). When children worked at the computer with a peer, they typically were actively interacting and cooperating. 70% of the peer interactions consisted of actively sharing use of the computer by taking turns, the remaining 30% being verbal and non-verbal assistance. By contrast, there was no turn-taking at the puzzles. Most of the children’s interactions were verbal explanations (telling the other child the required action). The researchers think that the nature of the available computer tasks may have stimulated social problem-solving, whereas the nature of puzzle-solving activity may have limited it. For example, responses to individual items in the computer tasks did not depend on previous responses, whereas the correct response in puzzle-solving depends on the pieces already placed. They hypothesized that for young children, the proposed computer activities allowed easier entry into the problem-solving situation than the jigsaw puzzles.

So it appears that traditional jigsaw puzzles allow for collaborative problem-solving but with only limited social interactions. At first, I was a bit disappointed to learn that. But then I thought about some people around me, introverts for whom social interactions demand lots of effort and energy and can sometimes be a real burden. John Steiner, the Senior Director of the Institute for Health Research in Denver, tells us what happened when people started to bring puzzles in the lunchroom of his department:

“Most researchers are introverts. We sit in offices with closed doors or in cubicles with powerful computers and little other equipment. A good day is one with plenty of uninterrupted time to think, to write, or to analyze data. We emerge for nutrients, caffeine, hydration, and (reluctantly) for meetings. Although we’re not averse to working on puzzles with others, we’re also content to work alone. As a result, our strategies for solving jigsaw puzzles emerge rarely from direct discussion, but rather from tacit, sequential effort. […] We have learned that to do our job, even introverts must band together […]. When we agree on a question and on a strategy for addressing it, answers emerge like the images on a jigsaw puzzle: gradually, anonymously, without claims of ownership but with shared satisfaction in the final product.” (Steiner, 2016)

Thus, solving jigsaw puzzles, in addition to perhaps help improve spatial skills, may be a way for introvert children and adults to experience the pride and the bond of collaborative work without the burden of social interaction that usually comes with it. Does this match your personal experience? Tell me with a comment!


Antle et al. (2009). Hands on What? Comparing Children’s Mouse-based and Tangible-based Interaction. IDC 2009, June 3–5, 2009, Como, Italy.

Hoffman, M., Gneezy, U., & List, J. A. (2011). Nurture affects gender differences in spatial abilities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(36): 14786-14788.

Husband (1940). Cooperative versus solitary problem solution. The Journal of Social Psychology 11: 405-409.

Levine et al. (2012). Early Puzzle Play: A predictor of preschoolers’ spatial transformation skill. Dev Psychol. 48(2): 530–542.

Muller and Perlmutter (1985). Preschool Children’s Problem-Solving Interactions At Computers and Jigsaw Puzzles. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 6: 173-186.

Steiner (2016). The Jigsaw Puzzle in the Lunchroom. The Permanente Journal 20(2):96-97.

Uttal et al. (2013). The malleability of spatial skills: A meta-analysis of training studies. Psychology Bulletin 139(2):352-402.

Verdine et al. (2014). Finding the missing piece: Blocks, puzzles and shapes fuel school readiness. Trends in Neuroscience and Education 3(1):7-13.

Xie et al. (2008). Are Tangibles More Fun? Comparing Children’s Enjoyment and Engagement Using Physical, Graphical and Tangible User Interfaces. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Tangible and Embedded Interaction (TEI’08), Feb 18-20 2008, Bonn, Germany

2 thoughts on “Jigsaw puzzles: Will research crush my dream of Christmas family time?

  • Reply S January 4, 2017 at 22:29

    Let us know if you find those two missing pieces!

    • Reply Carole Knibbe January 4, 2017 at 22:53

      Sure, with great pleasure!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.