Critter Mates

You know the feeling when you get that “aha” moment and want to run through the streets shouting “Eureka!”. What is it about solving puzzles that is so satisfying?

There is some evidence that early people had an interest in problem solving. Major breakthroughs like the invention of the wheel and learning to control fire happened rarely, but finding solutions to small problems probably occurred on a regular basis.

Recently researchers have investigated the urge to solve puzzles and have attempted to explain the brain mechanisms involved. Different types of puzzles require different skills.  Crossword puzzle solvers obviously need to have a good vocabulary, memory and pattern recognizing ability.  While much more research is need, there does seem to be some evidence to suggest that a high level of experience with some times of puzzles, crosswords, for example, in older subjects helps to attenuate the negative effects of age on memory and some perceptual speed tasks.  Other types of puzzles require spatial reasoning skills.  For example, Rubik’s Cubes, pentominoes, tangrams, soma cubes and other similar puzzles are involve spatial reasoning as well as logical sequencing skills.  Critter Mates is a little bit like a crossword puzzle in that the puzzle format is a grid.  Logical sequential skills are also involved.

In children with brain damage research has shown positive effects from puzzle solving activities.  In particular children who had a weak visual symbol memory that impaired their ability to spell and read words benefitted from unscrambling puzzles where mixed-up letters were paired with pictures.  But knowing just how these mechanism work has yet to be explained.

One thing that many educators know is that problem solving skills can be taught.  Some of the methodologies that are part of a comprehensive problem solving curriculum can be taught in relation to puzzles like Critter Mates.  Many educators employ a five-stage model to teaching problem solving:

1. Understand the problem.
2. Describe any barriers.
3. Identify various solutions.
1. Create visual images.
2. Guesstimate.
3. Create a table.
4. Use manipulatives.
5. Work backward.
6. Look for a pattern.
7. Create a systematic list.
4. Try out a solution.
1. Keep accurate records.
2. Persist with a strategy until is proven to not work.
3. Monitor the steps.
4. Step away from the problem for a while.
5. Evaluate the results.

Some people like to solve puzzles and others like to design them. Which one are you? Math ability and music seem to be related to problem solving ability. So if you have talent in these areas you might also be a great puzzle solver or creator.  In many cases puzzle solving ability requires synthesizing several different pieces of information and the ability to see patterns which are also skills that are fundamental to mathematics and music.  Activities like solving the Critter Mates puzzles may help to develop or strengthen these skills.

When I designed the Critter Mates I wanted to create a problem solving challenge where kids would be motivated to solve visual puzzles using ‘critters’ as a virtual manipulative.  Understanding the puzzle is fairly simple.  The goal is to move all the critters so that they are next to each other.  One way to approach the problem might be to work backward.  Visualize the solution and then try to figure out the steps needed to get to the solution.  The Critter Mates puzzle definitely has barriers.  The critters need to navigate the walls and will often get logically stuck. Keeping notes as an accurate record of what has been tried might help to avoid pitfalls in future attempts.  I hope that you will find that Critter Mates is intrinsically motivating and useful in teaching kids to be better problem solvers.