Last summer I spent a fabulous day at camp – Puzzle Piazza camp that is! The MathTree Puzzle Piazza program is a super fun DC-area summer camp that uses ThinkFun puzzles and games like Rush Hour to teach problem solving strategies through play… a game lovers dream! In the following guest post, MathTree founder Lynn Salvo shares her lifelong love of puzzles and her mission to empower kids with thinking tools learned through the joy of play!
A SUMMER CAMP THAT USES PUZZLES TO TEACH PROBLEM-SOLVING STRATEGIES
I am 7 years old. My family has just enjoyed a delicious dinner of Chinese food at Jimmy Wu’s in downtown Baltimore. We are at the cash register waiting to pay. I am eye level with a showcase lined with red silk, beautifully and mysteriously lit, displaying lovely wooden barrels, spheres, cubes, and other objects. This particular day, I am entranced with a w ooden Chinese gate that I can see is made of many interlocking pieces. When it is time to go and I cannot unglue my eyes from it, my dad, an engineer who intuits my intrigue with it, buys it for me. It is to be the first of a lifelong collection of puzzles.
At home, I fiddle with it and gently twist a knobby piece. Suddenly, the entire structure crumbles into an incoherent puddle, dissembled as if it had been shaken apart by an earthquake. Initially aghast, my puzzle-solving passion is born as I try to reconstruct the lovely wooden gate. As the puzzle is well beyond my abilities at that age, it takes some intervention from my engineer dad to interpret the cryptic solution printed on delicate rice paper. Once reassembled, the wooden gate came apart and went back together so many times that I could eventually do it effortlessly by heart. While I didn’t figure out the solution myself, I did have the satisfaction of being able to “get” the mysterious object.
Now, more than half a century later, my intrigue with puzzles is sharper than ever and has taken a new twist. I’ve turned it into a deliberate experience for children called Puzzle Piazza – A Problem-Solving Picnic for Kids.
The focus of the camp is to provide children the opportunity, through puzzle play, to develop and capture general problem-solving strategies that work for puzzles and also for life. The campers work puzzles, mostly 3-D ones like the one that captivated me so long ago, some easy and some extremely challenging. No matter the complexity of the puzzle, at some point the solver has an Aha moment that reveals the solution. Instead of rushing on to the next puzzle, we have the campers stop for a few moments and think about what led them to that magical Aha moment and to record a journal entry on their puzzle experience.
The journal entry is short. Prompts help the children record notes, sometimes drawing the puzzle and their solution to it. Often, campers need to solve the puzzle again to answer the questions, but this helps them capture their process and facilitates their recognition of that important Aha moment.
For younger campers, thinking about thinking can be a difficult activity. We prompt them with questions like, “If you were going to give me a hint on how to solve this puzzle, what would you tell me?” This one question seems to open their thought process and helps them start to see the strategies they have used. Campers learn to solve puzzles with intention and to develop persistence, qualities beneficial for many types of learning and problem-solving. Over a period of days, a camper can work many puzzles and have many Aha moments that result in discovery and deep learning. By the end of their experience, they have accumulated a basketful of general problem-solving strategies applicable to puzzles, math, school, and life. Introducing your child to problem solving early on will help him or her become a better thinker all around (or a puzzle aficionado like me).
In the DC-area and looking for a fun, brain-building summer activity? Learn more about the MathTree Puzzle Piazza summer program!