Puzzling – A Different Form Of Game Based Learning

This is not intended to be a long post, but more of an observation on learning.

I love puzzles. I also love Minecraft: Education Edition. The two have a surprising amount of cross over in terms of skills development when considered through the lens of Game Based Learning theory.

It can be said that play and learning are synonymous, leading to cognitive and emotional development inside a social and cultural context. (source)

Before bedtime tonight, my two youngest engaged in a quick 40mins of puzzling:


Working as a team to complete the shark puzzle that had been selected

Whilst I was an active participant in the puzzling, I was also an interested observer and while it was clear the goal was a fun activity before bed, it was abundantly evident that a lot of skills were being developed through this play.

This is not an exhaustive list, but included:

  • Communication: Miss 11yrs and Mr 9yrs were in constant communication with each other, as well as myself, discussing pieces they were looking for, celebrating when a piece was successfully matched, and humming popular songs of the day. They also liberally engaged in ‘stream of consciousness’ thinking and talking, associating the activity of puzzling with other activities they’d engaged in at school earlier in the day and memories from holidays at the beach.
  • Collaboration: at times, they paired up to find a specific piece of the puzzle (in this case with the aim of completing a singular shark). This required teamwork, especially when they each had pieces of a single shark and had to move them around to fit them together correctly
  • Critical Thinking: it’s easy to overlook the level of thinking that takes place when playing games. Throughout our time of puzzling this evening, there were frequent references to the illustration on the box, along with consulting the names of the sharks they were attempting to complete. There was also considerable spatial awareness required to correctly locate partially completed sharks in the overall ‘frame’ of the puzzle, even when it was not yet complete. To do this successfully required negotiating where the other person was working at the time, so both communication and collaboration also came into play again here.
  • Creativity: One of the great challenges of puzzles is the need to visualize in entirety what is only partially complete on the table. This requires imagination and creativity of thought because you can not rely on the individual pieces to tell the whole story/picture until they are actually completed. Listening to my two kids discussing aloud how they thought the puzzle was going to look and what would go where was really an exercise in listening to creative thought and imagination in action.

Why This Matters

When I was a classroom teacher I believed in using a wide variety of tools to assist students in comprehension and learning. I loved digital tools like Google Earth for teaching students geography, but I equally liked batting around my classroom an inflatable globe so students that preferred kinesthetic learning styles could catch it, spin it around to find the country in question, then punch it on to another classmate to have a go. Another example was using digital timelines in history – these were great as you could easily embed images, videos and expand/contract the timeline based on the amount of records you wanted to include. However, nothing quite surpassed having a physical timeline of history on a wall where students could scan a large epoch of history, run their fingers over it, locate a specific event and see at a glance where it fit in the breadth of human development.

Clearly, there is a place for both digital and physical tools for learning in the classroom.

I’m a huge fan of Minecraft: Education Edition and believe it’s awesome at teaching the 5 C’s of 21st Century Skills that I saw evidenced above in the puzzling, but the point is mixing up the digital and the analogue tools we use in our classrooms really helps engage students in different ways. The aim of puzzling before bedtime was to relax and unwind after a busy day at school, however inherent in the gameplay was plenty of learning and socialising – the chatter between the three of us was constant.

Analogue activities like board games and puzzles promote the social skills developed by being in proximity, looking at a shared space but also having “downtime” between turns to engage in off topic chatter and conversation. When you’re working on a screen in isolation there is less of this (it still exists, but in a different way).

I was on a flight home last night and struck up a conversation with the person beside me. After around 20mins the topic turned to Minecraft and how it can be used in such wide areas of learning. I discussed how my two kids puzzling above love to play Minecraft but are limited to 1hr of gameplay on a Saturday and 1hr on a Sunday. Nevertheless, the allure of Minecraft: Education Edition is so strong that they read a lot of books on how to improve their knowledge and skills in the game, and when we go on bike rides together they discuss at length (indeed, it’s more of a monologue!) what they’ve built so far as well as what they intend to build in future sessions.

I love the fact that the digital gameplay is both a motivation and driver of their literacy and oral skills too. I’ve blogged previously about the way Game Based Learning is expressed in Minecraft: Education Edition that may be of interest to you here – check it out here.

As you may have picked up, I quite like puzzles and I think one of the other reasons is that it’s great for mental health! It’s calming and relaxing and great as a mindfulness activity, not dissimilar to colouring-in / illustrating books (and also completing Lego sets following the instructions!)

I am always keen to discuss what I've written and hear your ideas so leave a reply here...