Sunday, November 24, 2013

Puzzle Joy

My daughter and I spent about an hour today curled up in an armchair together. Our heads were pressed together as we bent over my iPad, working out jigsaw puzzles on the screen. I'm teaching her the way my mother taught me; fill in the border first using the straight edge pieces. Then use colors to fill in the middle unless the colors don't help, in which case evaluate the shapes of the pieces. I hold back as my daughter uses her chubby three-year-old fingers to drag the pieces off the sidebar and move them around the board. She still works mostly by trial and error but I see glimmers of logic emerging as she works out each new design. Anything that provides an hour of quiet fun for a preschooler is a winner in my book, and something that requires thought and problem solving is even better.

Puzzles have long been the purview of families. Around 1760 an engraver named John Spilsbury first pasted a map to a wooden board and used a saw to cut out the different countries. Wealthy English schoolchildren used his invention to learn their geography, but puzzles caught on as entertainment. In the early 20th century jigsaw puzzles were handmade and too expensive for anyone but the wealthy, but in the 1930's die cut cardboard puzzles opened the hobby up to the middle classes. Today puzzles are sold in two and three dimensional variations and can be made of cardboard, wood, plastic, styrofoam and now, pixels.  

Pixellated puzzles aren't perfect. I miss the tactile element of handling and sorting pieces and the sensation of edges locking together. The application I use holds the unused pieces in a sidebar; they are small and you can only see ten pieces at a time, which requires significant memorization skills. The puzzle screen itself is limited to the size of the iPad which tasks my eyesight on more complex puzzles. On the other hand, I can carry a library of hundreds of puzzles with me wherever I go. The pieces can't be lost or scattered and a solution in progress is held in memory without cats or preschoolers pulling the pieces apart. Each puzzle can be done at different levels of difficulty. You can choose the number of pieces ranging from 42 to 550 and you can set the pieces to rotate, imitating what would happen with physical puzzle pieces. I can solve a puzzle with my daughter on the easiest settings and then later return to it and challenge myself with a tougher version.

I wasn't a puzzle lover as a child. My mother and sister loved them but I usually wandered off to read a book. My daughter has been fascinated with them since her grandparents bought her a 24 piece cardboard puzzle with a popular cartoon character on it when she was two. I seem to have caught the bug from her, finding joy and achievement in assembling lovely pictures on an electronic screen. Perhaps it's just the fun of doing something together. Perhaps it's that puzzles are a nice metaphor for life, with hours of patient work fitting tiny pieces together producing a beautiful whole. Or perhaps the genetics just finally kicked in. Whatever the reason, I seem to be hooked.