Playing puzzles builds artisanship

Child as artisan; Artisan as child

Playing puzzles teaches us artisanship

I spent yesterday afternoon exploring my geeky games, toys and puzzle collection with my children and I was struck with what I learned.

Watching my children become completely absorbed by these excellent ThinkFun puzzles made me think about the artisan theme of complexity.

Here is my son playing the River Crossing puzzle.  I think he is only playing the first or second level out of 40 graded challenges.  It was amazing to watch though.

He would pick up a piece, try it, replace it if it did not work and try with something else.

He would pause and think, working out a new hypothesis and then test that.  If it worked he went was excited by the progress and carried on until eureka! he had crossed the river.

At the same time his sister was playing Rush Hour.  She would touch this car or that lorry, move it or, if it could not be moved, try another.  (This idea of physically connecting with the work is a key thought of John Ruskin and craftmanship – more on that later)

I loved that there were no self-recriminations if they had got it wrong but, instead, a playful frustration, accompanied by giggles and squeals of “It’s making my brain hurt!” as they set about another attempt.

Whenever a puzzle had been solved there was a real hunger to move onto the next harder level.

ThinkFun games have brilliant shaped learning curves so that the next challenge is always a little bit harder.  They introduce new possibilities, moves or tactics one at a time and constantly loop back and pick up a tactic previously learnt as well.  As we progress through these successive challenges then our skill and mastery grows too.

We are able, through effort, struggle and gradual progression to build up to sophisticated levels of complex problem solving reasonably quickly.

This “Struggle” is important.

Just reading the answer cards will not bring about learning.  We would lose that ability to make and refine  the synaptic connections that will help us apply similar solutions to different problems that we come across in the future.

As adults, and as professionals, it is very easy to lose this playfulness.

We can get caught in believing that we know it all.  At the very least, we can caught up in what I call “The Expert’s Curse”, namely a self deluding conceit that if I convince myself that I know all I need to then I can call myself expert.  As professional service providers we often feel compelled to trade from a position of expertise, of knowing it all.

The problem is that experts can have a tendency to reject novel ideas without even a hint of curiosity.  We see, instead, reductive thinking where anything new or challenging is reduced to be an example or evidence of something we already know (“Well, this is what we have been saying for years” – assimilation) or an idea that is only worthy of attack, dismissal and debunking.

Imagine my son saying, as he sets up the next harder challenge… “Oh, this is similar to the last one I did.  I can do River Crossing…”

The moment my son believes he is an expert at River Crossing, or my daughter at Rush Hour, well, that is the moment they stop reaching for the next challenge and continuing to grow.


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3 thoughts on “Playing puzzles builds artisanship

  1. […] his wife, two children, and their guinea pigs – he originally shared this post on his blog Get Artisan. You can follow Neil on […]

  2. I would add another. Many people struggle after losing the curiosity. If they don’t know the answer they demand why somebody can’t just provide them with it. If you provide them with a set of tools or resources and say “you’ll probably be able to find the answer over there”, hoping they’ll solve the problem for themselves (knowing that it will both provide satisfaction and an individual idea of next learning actions, you’ll often get asked why you can’t just “tell them”.

    A shame.

    • neildenny says:

      Good point…

      And the thing about puzzles and learning through play is that as soon as we say “Just tell me” then we lose the enjoyment completely.

      More toys and games required perhaps. Any recommendations?

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