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The benefit of puzzles in the classroom and beyond

Lilian Nyaranga

My father was an avid newspaper reader, so newspapers were a permanent fixture in our home. As a young girl of about 10 years old, I loved the children’s magazine pull-outs found inside the Sunday newspaper. The puzzles inside these magazines enamoured me, and my sister and I would fight over the crossword puzzle page. 

I loved learning about new words when filling out the crosswords. I remember poring over the dictionary, looking up vocabulary for solving the crossword puzzles. Back then, there was no Google, so looking up words manually was the norm. Little did I know that this was to be the beginning of an adventure with puzzles that would span my entire childhood and adult life. 

Learning valuable skills and life lessons

Puzzles are not just for relaxation – they help in exercising the brain, teaching logic skills, improving memory retention and critical thinking skills. The discovery of Sudoku was a game-changer for me, partly because of my love for numbers. Sudoku challenged me and helped me expand my thinking to levels I could have never imagined. As a result, I can now appreciate the following skills and lessons I’ve learnt over the years through solving Sudoku and other puzzles:

1. All problems have solutions

I have solved many different types of puzzles, ranging from simple to hard ones. What I’ve learnt over time is that no matter how complex a problem is, there is always a solution. I have also learnt that there are different methods one can use to arrive at the correct solution. Sometimes the answers are obvious and other times, you have to work hard for them or seek help from others. 

2. Determination and resilience pay in the long run

Puzzles can be a hard nut to crack, and this can be very discouraging and prompt one to give up. Many times, I have thrown a puzzle away out of frustration of not getting a solution, only to look for it the following day to continue solving it. Solving tricky puzzles can be exciting and intimidating at the same time. The strategy I use is to examine the puzzle keenly and start with what I know. Sometimes, all you need is to make a small move and boom, everything begins to unravel before your own eyes and you realise it wasn’t as challenging as you thought.

3. Working with others can make a complex problem simpler

Yes, collaborating on a puzzle can also be fun. The times I’ve solved crossword puzzles with friends or family members, we ended up solving them faster.

 4. It’s okay to accept defeat and ask for help

In a society where failure is frowned upon, it can be frustrating to try everything possible and still not find a solution. There are many puzzles that I have solved over time but there are others that I have been unable to. I’ve learnt that it’s okay not to know everything. It’s okay to seek help, make mistakes, and learn in the process. 

5. Puzzles can be therapeutic

I have often used puzzles as a distraction during my low moments. The excitement in puzzles is in solving them. That feeling one gets after solving a given puzzle is priceless. I found that when my mind is fully engrossed in finding solutions to the puzzle, my focus shifts away from my troubles. The thrill I get from solving the puzzle changes my mood for the better and the problem is forgotten.

The Birth of AddSub and MulDi puzzles

A few years back, I transitioned from being a teacher to starting my own social enterprise for creating STEM resources for learning, called Elimu Shop. As a Maths teacher, I had been thinking for many years about how I could make children enjoy Maths while learning at the same time. So naturally, due to my love of puzzles, it was the first idea that sprung to my mind.

One of the first projects that I embarked on was to develop Maths puzzles for children. I had no idea where to start; all I knew was that I wanted something that was fun and developed vital competency skills. 

My initial idea was to create simple puzzles for younger children. Since then, the puzzles have undergone many modifications and iterations, and the outcome is the creation of what is now gamified AddSub and MulDi puzzles. The AddSub puzzle is derived from addition and subtraction operations, while the MulDi puzzle is derived from multiplication and division operations. 

My childhood dream materialised

In 2022, we had the first set of AddSub and MulDi puzzles published. You can imagine the excitement I felt when I saw the first AddSub and MulDi puzzle printed books! It was a very emotional moment for me – okay, I cried. Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think that my childhood indulgence would lead to published puzzle books for children, which you can also find on my Teacha! store.

The puzzles come in different levels of difficulty to cater to all learners with varying learning abilities. Besides being fun, these puzzles develop basic numeracy, critical thinking, logic, and problem-solving. They also build strong foundations in algebra, an essential mathematical concept in school and beyond. And they are great fun for adults too! Hence, they are an excellent tool for families to bond over as they solve the puzzles together and a great way of offering breaks from TV and technology. 

I hope that children will be excited about working on these puzzles to improve their Mathematics skills. By solving these puzzles, they will also gain skills and values like resilience, collaboration, and learning from failure, which are crucial for success in the real world.

About the author:
Lilian Nyaranga is a former Mathematics and Chemistry teacher, a prolific content designer and an edtech enthusiast. She is currently the founder of Elimu Shop, an education company in Nairobi, Kenya that creates innovative teaching and learning resources to make learning STEM subjects fun. You can find her resources on her Teacha! store, or follow her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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