Physical vs Digital Puzzles: Which is Better for Cognitive Development?

Child on Floor Playing with Lego and iPad Mini Building Robots

Physical puzzles and digital puzzles both offer benefits to children, but the method of delivery can influence just how much benefit a child gets from puzzle play. Let’s take a look at the ways that physical and digital puzzles affect child development.

Cognitive Benefits of Puzzles

Physical and digital puzzles both develop cognitive abilities. Whether your child is picking up real pieces or swiping a screen, they are developing better spatial awareness and shape recognition skills than their peers. According to a University of Chicago study, children with these skills are more likely to excel at STEM subjects.

Though skill acquisition is a positive, digital puzzles do have some unique negatives. The uses of physical puzzles are limited only by a child’s imagination. They can do the puzzle, or they can build with it, or make up a story with the pieces as characters.

Digital puzzles are bound by their coding. They will only do what they are coded to do, which makes them imagination squashers. So while a child can gain cognitive benefits from both types of puzzles, physical puzzles are best for open ended play and learning.

Social Benefits of Puzzles

Children who do physical puzzles develop 5 fundamental social skills according to leading toy maker Melissa & Doug. They learn about problem-solving, patience, listening, good sportsmanship, and develop a longer attention span. Melissa & Doug go on to explain that these skills are gained through using physical puzzles in a social environment.

Digital puzzles are isolators by design. Physical puzzles require child and parent interaction to help find the right piece for the right place, while digital puzzles often offer hints or have an auto-solve function so don’t encourage social interaction. Spielgaben found that because of this isolation, children who played with digital puzzles were slower to talk and had a smaller vocabulary. They also had shorter attention spans and less patience than their peers.

Digital puzzles are often offered as a distraction when a parent doesn’t have time to interact with their child, so children who play digital puzzles get the double whammy of reduced social skills through digital isolation and less parental involvement in their lives.

Physical Benefits of Puzzles

Whether holding a puzzle piece or tapping and dragging a piece across a screen, children can improve their fine motor skills by playing with puzzles. But the ways a child can touch a screen are limited. Spielgaben points out that digital puzzles don’t allow a child to develop their pincer grip, which can lead to problems with pencil grip at school.

Children who prefer digital puzzles have decreased physical fitness compared to their peers. They are heavier and often have high blood pressure according to Spielgaben. This preference for a digital product often leads to increased screen time and gaming addiction, all of which can result in obesity and related effects like heart disease.

Are There Any Unique Benefits of Digital Puzzles?

Digital puzzles can be a fun introduction to digital literacy. Most children will have technology in their classrooms, and will probably use that tech to play educational apps like digital puzzles.

Since the rise of smart phone and tablet apps, digital puzzles are highly portable. They can be a good alternative to physical puzzles in situations where physical puzzle pieces are impractical to move as digital puzzle pieces can’t be lost.

The key to unlocking the benefits of digital puzzles is parental involvement and limiting the duration of digital puzzle play. Children need their parents to talk and interact with them while they play. When a parent uses a digital puzzle as a distraction the child will suffer cognitively and socially. Regular use of digital puzzles as a distraction leads to a weaker bond between the child and parent, and can ultimately lead to gaming addiction.

Gaming Addiction in Children

The biggest disadvantage of digital puzzles is the potential for gaming addiction in children. We have all seen those children, maybe even our own, who throw tantrums and lash out when game time is over. Children who are addicted to gaming often lie to get game time, or steal family phones or tablets to play in secret. They can become too obsessed with a game to eat, drink, or go to toilet. Their social skills decrease and their aggression skyrockets.

Gaming addiction in children can have serious, life-long consequences according to Empowering Parents. Though parents are often convinced of the educational benefits of a particular app, gaming addiction leads to poor school performance, which can ultimately result in less employment options later on. Not only does gaming addiction damage a child and parent relationship, it can prevent the child from having healthy relationships in the future.

Gaming addiction can be prevented if games are offered in moderation and parents are involved. If a child uses an educational app to help them learn to read then the parent should follow up with a book or sight word practice. If a game is offered for entertainment then it should be a multi-player game and playing alone should be discouraged. Every gaming session should have a time limit and a range of appealing physical activities should always be offered before games.

Physical Puzzles Are Better For Child Development

While children can gain cognitive, social, and physical skills from both physical and digital puzzles, physical puzzles are better for child development. Physical puzzles encourage exploration and imagination, strengthen social skills, and develop relevant fine motor skills like pencil grip. They offer educational benefits without being limited by coding or leading to gaming addiction. Physical puzzles are the best option for your child’s social and educational well-being.

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