Puzzles in the Classroom

 

by Mark Kielpinski, Summer 2002

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I'll start by discussing the basic puzzles that I would have a teacher begin with if they had no other puzzles in their classroom. These are basically the puzzles that I had started with when I began using puzzles frequently. I'll add that there are many puzzles that were passed down to the lower elementary as I got more made and thought that they were appropriate for the lower elementary. It also happened that my own children were in those classes, and we just made extras that could be used in the classrooms. As a staff we had also agreed that we would try to introduce Tangrams and their puzzle shapes at the second and third grade level. At the fourth grade we had introduced Pentominoes as well as continuing to use Tangrams. We also had several sets of 3D Pentominoes that students in fourth grade used as a step up from the flat 2D Pentominoes.

Beginner Puzzles
Beginner Puzzles
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Included in this first picture are some beginning puzzles that I would consider "Basic or Beginner" puzzles for a classroom. The boxed puzzle is the Diabolical Cube, behind it is the Tower of Brahma, in the middle of the picture is a Marble Maze, a Two-Piece Burr and also a Six Piece Burr with a solid key piece. On the right is a basic Post Puzzle; in the front is what I call a "Wrecktangle," and to its left is the Wit's End. To the right of the Wit's End is a two piece Tetrahedron. The back left of the picture has the Checkered Soma, a Diagonal Burr and a puzzle that I call Stickball. In this group of puzzles there are some basic packing, some easy ring and string puzzles (topological) to develop patterns for more difficult topology puzzles, and some basic put-together puzzles. I like to include the diagonal burr because the center of the puzzle and the separation of the two halves leads into so many of the other Stewart Coffin puzzles.
Letter and Dissection Puzzles
Letter and Dissection Puzzles
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Next would be some more basic puzzles. The letter dissections are not my first choice for basic wood puzzles because these could be made out of cardboard or tagboard and still be utilized effectively. The letter dissections could be moved down to lower grades, possible third or fourth. I have the elephant puzzle in several different woods. I also have a dog and a camel that I am currently enlarging. The kids love these puzzles. I got to the point where a student drew the pieces for the kangaroo from a catalog I had but I haven't had time to make it yet. Also the two piece and three piece burrs are basic puzzles that the students quickly master. Most of these puzzles come from Wyatt's books.
Ring and String Puzzles
Ring and String Puzzles
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The picture at right includes some of the ring and string puzzles that I have in my classroom. Once the students have learned the basics, they begin to tackle more difficult puzzles. I have included ring and string puzzles because of the variety that they offer. Usually there will be some students that can look at the string and see right away the open path or how to solve the puzzle. There are also some students that have difficulty tying their shoes and are almost allergic to ring and string puzzles.

Another type of puzzle that has developed quite a fan club has been the burr puzzles. From basic to complex many students enjoy burrs because of the concrete objects that they make. There is a definite shape that should be made.
Impossible Puzzles
Impossible Puzzles
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There is an unusual type of puzzle that I use called "Impossible Object" puzzles. To solve these puzzles, you simply have to figure out how they were created. The main benefit of these is as a thinking exercise. I would bring in a new object about every two weeks and ask the students to journal about how they thought that the object was made. I had assured them that I had made all of the puzzles myself and I gave them time over the week to examine the puzzles. When they had turned in the papers I would read them over and generally answer them. I would tell the class that "no I didn't have a candle or burning object that sucked the object into the jar." Because many of them have had this experience with an egg being sucked into the jar because of a candle and the increased suction due to the lack of oxygen I can see the application of prior experiences. After the first journal if they want to continue the dialog they may keep writing to me and I'll continue to respond. One of the big reasons for this is to get students to expand their thoughts, to become comfortable with not knowing everything, and finally the development of how to ask a question. Many kids will just say "I don't get it" or "I can't do it." I want them to know that there is a way to sort through what they do know and what they need to find out and that by asking the right questions or by asking questions correctly it develops the problem solving process. I also try to have a variety of materials like the cards and the lock, which would not survive fire (cards) or may have an odd shape (lock).
Medium Challenge Puzzles
Medium Challenge Puzzles
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The next puzzles are of Medium Challenge. These include Convolution, the Six Piece Pinned Burr and a serial interlocking four piece cube (all by Coffin). The Gaby Puzzle is pictured in the back as well as a wooden Instant Insanity, a Dice puzzle, a pseudo diagonal burr and Nob's Spinning X Puzzle. Two of these puzzles have a spinning or centrifugal motion to solving them and sometimes that has thrown students off. Several of the other puzzles require some dexterity to put together while the Convolution and other serial puzzles (one order to take apart together and put together) require attention to how the pieces are taken apart. Usually students are not real observant the first time around.
Difficult Challenge Puzzles
Difficult Challenge Puzzles
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Next are the Difficult Puzzles. Some of these are pictured in both the medium picture and the difficult because for some students they may be medium difficulty. For most they are very difficult. The cage in the back has four solid key pieces but all other pieces are different. Each burr in each corner is different. To the left of that is the Half Hour Cube, it could be called the Half Day Cube. Also included are the Dirty Dozen (sliding puzzle), Instant Insanity and Coffin's Unhappy Childhood.

I know there are more Difficult Puzzles but what I have tried to do is to make puzzles that my students could do and then some... a bit ahead of where they are to challenge just a touch. My choices of wood and selection of puzzles to make have also changed as the equipment that I have to work with has changed over the years. Time would be my major fault right now. I think that in the spare time between teaching elementary school and teaching part-time at the University and working with computers that I have been able to make a nice selection to use in my classroom/school. I could have purchased the puzzles but I have classroom sets of some things I have made. My Dad used to say "he had more time than money" and I think that applied to me as a teacher. Resources were limited but when I made them myself, it was limited by my time and desire. I also made a tree to hang metal puzzles on and had a variety of those. Usually when my wife would travel she would bring me back a metal puzzle and these ended up at school for the students to use also.

I hope that this provides some thoughts and ideas about how I use puzzles in the classroom. I would make a new puzzle and take several into school and place them in several different grade levels and check with the teachers at the end of the week. If the puzzle was well received then we would leave it for their collection. If not we would try to adjust, a simpler puzzle or a different variety.

I will mention that I make all of my own puzzles. There is a cabinet maker in town that saves his scrap hardwood for me (usually oak, birch, hickory and maple) so I have plenty of material to work with and plenty of puzzles that I want to make but never (never) enough time. Students will bring in puzzles and I'll make a version for our classroom and I'll give them an extra from my collection. I can't believe the number of puzzles that I am starting to accumulate. Even greater is the direction that I would like to go with them. Maybe someday...

NEXT: Advice for Teachers Just Starting Out

Last Updated: February 7, 2005 top
Puzzles in the Classroom
How Puzzles are Used in My Classroom
The Puzzles in My Program
Advice for Teachers Just Starting Out

 
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