Children’s Games, Puzzles, and Learning through Play

Children’s Games, Puzzles, and Learning through Play
  • 2022-23

Walking into the playground at break or lunchtime, I see many games going on. In Primary, there are children playing ball games, performing handstands, spinning Rubik’s cubes, swapping cards, as well as inventing their own imaginary games.  

Children’s games tend to be the same everywhere, and this seems to have been true for a long time.

If you look closely at the Flemish painter Peter Breughel’s 1560 canvas ‘Children’s Games’, you will see around 80 games represented, including rolling hoops, walking on stilts, leap-frog, and blind man's bluff. 

Playing games is a fundamental human instinct.

This realisation prompted Johan Huizinga in 1938 to identify the human species not just conventionally as homo sapiens or home erectus but as ‘homo ludens’.

The intuition is confirmed when you see what people do with technology. Given smart phones with their astonishing processing speed and access to the entire world’s knowledge, what do people do with them? They play Candy Crush.

We are, then – irresistibly – animals that play.

Being successful at games requires a player to balance the skills of cooperation and competition.  All games involve an element of chance, but they also involve strategy and mental skill.

Either way, the desire to play taps into an appetite for creativity, and satisfies an impulse for overcoming a challenge.

Indeed, most games involve the imposition of some kind of obstacle or constraint. The need to get a ball over a net, for example, or to loft a ball over water and sand.

The constraints can be more immediately physical. In hide-and-seek and blind man’s buff, for instance, at least one player must remain unsighted. In hopscotch, contestants must operate using only one leg.

The imposition of a constraint or obstacle is fundamental to the notion of a particular type of game – the puzzle. One thinks immediately of jigsaws or crossword puzzles, which remain enormously popular.

It was Lewis Carroll in 1886 who first popularised puzzles in his book, The Game of Logic. He had already explored the idea creatively in his ‘Alice’ books, but he was the first to make the theory of games accessible.  

There emerges a clear sequence to the experience of solving a puzzle. It begins with the bafflement stage, then there are the stages of effort and pleasurable focus, with the application of logical strategy before the final ‘aha’ or ‘lightbulb’ moment.

Solving puzzles demands the skills of pattern recognition, visual memory (in card games for example and the Rubik’s cube) and reasoning, and for all the mental sophistication involved, finding the solution yields a primitive emotional pleasure.

While the use of logic is essential to games generally, puzzles often require what Edward de Bono called ‘lateral thinking’ – the ability to solve problems indirectly or creatively, without necessarily resorting to step-by-step logic.

The sideways movement of the knight in a game of chess would seem to embody this idea of lateral thinking.  

Maki Kaji understood the thrill that people feel in setting themselves unnecessary challenges, recognising that we all enjoy a mental workout. He invented Sudoku to help satisfy that need, calling it ‘the brain’s trip to the spa.’ 

Covid also threw this innate human impulse into sharp focus. People were denied the opportunity to engage in physical activity. It was inevitable therefore that the pandemic saw a renewed interest in mental games.

A good example is the phenomenon of Wordle. In November 2021, the exercise had fewer than 100 daily players. Within a year it had 3 million avid fans. Its simple format, the once-a-day frequency, and the fact that it was intriguing without proving too frustrating, all contributed to its popularity.

The experience of solving a puzzle also perhaps feeds into the modern mindfulness agenda of slowing things down and focusing on just one thing.

In education, the value of games has long been recognised. Learning through play has been part of the curriculum in the UK for decades.

It’s a simple fact that children learn more and remember more when actively engaged in a game. So, activities such as role play, the use of quizzes and competitions, are all part of a teacher’s tool kit.

Games and puzzles operate to open the space of the mind. They can encourage self-discipline and patience, and allow students to engage imaginatively with topics.

If we can exploit the human appetite for puzzles, and make learning a game, and make work a kind of play, then we succeed not only in adding to the stock of knowledge and understanding, but we also add to the stock of our happiness.

To combine learning and happiness would seem to be the dream of any education.     

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal and CEO

  • Games
  • Learning