Involving kids in puzzle play can aid in the development of spatial skills, which affects STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers later in their life, state experts.
A study by University of Chicago researchers has found that children who play with puzzles between ages 2 and 4 later develop better spatial skills.
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.
"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.
For the research, 53 child-parent pairs from diverse socio-economic 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.
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.
"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," the researcher added.
The finding has been published in the current early view issue of Developmental Science.