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My Perspective: Puzzles are fun, and easy on the brain

During my work travels, I often find myself visiting senior living facilities for various reasons. Every facility is a little different from the next. Some have bird aviaries. Some have therapy pools. Some have a nice piano. Some have big TVs and recliners. But there is at least one feature in each senior living facility that is constant. They all have jigsaw puzzles.

Puzzles were invented back in 1767 by an Englishman named John Spilbury. He was an engraver and mapmaker in London. The first puzzle he made was a map of the world. He attached a map to a piece of wood and then cut out each country. Teachers used Spilsbury’s puzzles to teach geography. Since the 1700s, puzzles have gotten more advanced. Puzzle makers used a scroll or fret saw to get better curved lines on the puzzle. These saws were later called jigsaws, which led to the name jigsaw puzzles. The popularity of puzzles peaked in the 1930s, ,and it has been fairly steady ever since.

This year’s puzzle featured vintage board game covers. Several family members worked on the 1,000-piece puzzle, which was completed in about a day and a half. Photo by Jim Palmer

This year’s puzzle featured vintage board game covers. Several family members worked on the 1,000-piece puzzle, which was completed in about a day and a half. Photo by Jim Palmer

For hundreds of years, puzzles were just thought of as a fun activity — which they are. But in the last 30-40 years, the jigsaw puzzle has gotten more and more respect from researchers and scholars worldwide. Turns out, this fun activity is also great for the gray matter between our ears.

For little ones, puzzles are proven to help make critical connections in the brain. Putting a puzzle together is said to improve such cognitive skills as problem solving, fine motor development, hand and eye coordination, cooperative play (when doing a puzzle with another) and even self-esteem. We all know the feeling you get when you put in that last piece. For a toddler, that feeling really advances their confidence. And not only does the physical connecting of puzzle pieces help connect the brain processes, they also learn from the image on the puzzle itself (numbers, colors, animals, shapes, etc), just like Spilbury used his puzzles to teach geography.

Researchers also give puzzles high praise for their impact on the brain as it ages. For the senior population, puzzles can help keep the brain engaged and active. Keeping your brain in shape has gotten more attention over the last 20 years as studies are pointing to brain inactivity as one of the key factors in dementia and cognitive decline as we age. Just how much activities such as puzzles, sudoku and crosswords can prevent cognitive decline has yet to be determined, but a link has been made.

After years of not doing puzzles, my wife and I started doing more and more of them when our kids were young. All three of them enjoyed puzzles in their younger years, and our youngest still is very much in the puzzle years.

Over the last 3-4 years, we have purchased a fun 1,000-piece puzzle and brought it to our Christmas or Thanksgiving gatherings. We have brought one to both my side of the family and my wife’s side of the family. We always pick a puzzle that has a lot going on in it, but is not so challenging that people will get frustrated. This year we brought a puzzle to Christmas called “Games We Played” which had 40-50 vintage board game covers from the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Each year that we bring a puzzle, it doesn’t take long before the box is cracked open and someone starts turning over the pieces and searching for side and corner pieces. And jigsaw puzzles are one of the few games that are truly fun for all generations. This Christmas, we had a 6 year old and a 69 year old working side by side, with some 30- and 40-year olds rounding out the puzzle-making team.

One year, we picked up a trick puzzle, but didn’t realize it until halfway through the puzzle. There are puzzles out there in which the puzzle is slightly different than the picture on the front (on purpose). Only after you start putting it together do you realize that something isn’t quite right. It definitely makes the puzzle more challenging.

One year, we finished the puzzle only to realize that a few pieces were missing. What a let down. But there was a solution. My brother and mom took a picture of the holes in the puzzle and sent them to the puzzle manufacturer. A week later, the puzzle company sent my mom the missing pieces… for free! Now that is good customer service.

Putting together jigsaw puzzles were actually part of the Christmas tradition on my dad’s side of the family. When my dad and his siblings were young, my grandma would buy a large puzzle with small pieces. They said the puzzle was always challenging. As the story goes, my grandma would give them the puzzle on Christmas, and as soon as it was assembled, they would receive their Christmas presents. It would sometimes take them hours of working together. What a cool idea (and a little cruel).

Have a few puzzles in the closet? Why not dust them off and crack them open. It will be good for your brain, good for your grandkids’ brains, and it can bring generations together… and it will just feel like fun.

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