(RxWiki News) When children play with puzzles between the ages of two and four, they develop better spatial skills later in life and are better able to translate shapes.
This is an important predictor of ability and success in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM courses), and children's pursuit of these degrees and careers later in life.
"Encourage puzzle play with your kids for science and math skills."
University of Chicago researchers completed the first study that looked at puzzle play in a natural setting. Psychologist Susan Levine, lead author, included 53 child-parent pairs from very different socioeconomic backgrounds in the longitudinal study.
Her research team video-recorded the parents and their children interacting for 90-minute sessions, which occurred every four months when the children were between 26 and 46 months old.
Parents were asked to interact with their children as they normally did on an everyday basis. About half of the children were observed playing with puzzles at least once, and the higher-income parents tended to engage their kids with puzzles more frequently.
Both boys and girls who played with puzzles demonstrated better spatial skills on an assessment given later at 54 months of age, although boys performed better than girls on this assessment.
The boys played with more complicated puzzles than girls, and parents of the boys provided more spatial language and were more engaged during their play.
“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 Levine. Activities such as early puzzle play may lay the groundwork for the development of this ability.
“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," Levine added.
Her team is currently doing a study in which parents are asked to play with puzzles with their preschool age sons and daughters, and the same puzzles are given to both sexes, in order to see if the parents provide the same input to the boys and girls.
Levine says that the findings may suggest that our societal stereotype that males have better spatial skills may be due to the different in parental language and engagement.
The study was funded by the National Science Foundation (Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center) and by the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Findings were published in the February 2012 issue of Developmental Science.