The Puzzle Builder

I have a friend who enjoys building jigsaw puzzles. My reaction on hearing this, years back, was similar to that of people hearing that I enjoy crochet. These are old hobbies and not seldom spoken of or seen regularly. We consider them old fashioned and perhaps outdated.  

I love many things about this friend and found myself wondering if being a puzzle builder (formal name: dissectologist – yes, really) has anything to do with her genuine character, sincere interest in others, honest living and strong work ethic. So, I started researching what I could about puzzles in an attempt to understand what makes my friend an outstanding individual.

The first jigsaw puzzle is credited to John Spilsbury, a mapmaker, who cut up (with a jigsaw) a map of the world that was pasted on a wooden board. This was then used as a teaching aid for school children learning geography in 1767. However, it was only in the early 1900s that puzzle building became an adult recreational activity.   

For many parents, the jigsaw puzzle is a favourite educational toy for their young children. We are told that puzzles are good for developing the brain (a primary parental concern) because:

  • the left and right sides of the brain are exercised;
  • logic and creativity work together;
  • puzzle building demands focused attention;
  • it teaches problem-solving strategies by identifying which pieces belong where;
  • a planned approach is needed to create the final image;
  • it improves visual-spatial reasoning – understanding how small things fit into a bigger picture;
  • puzzle building offers stress relief and can serve to manage anxiety because engaging in a task like building puzzles takes one’s worry away from everyday concerns.

I recall with great fondness the Mordillo puzzles – all those crazy little characters, frenzied and fanciful, with loads of tiny detail but lots of colour and humour. And, of course, the triangular-shaped boxes in which they were packaged.


There’s a lot of cognitive stuff going on above, but what of emotional intelligence or sensitivity to others. And what has all of this to do with my fabulous adult friend?

I’ve decided that there must be a development of character in a puzzle builder who keeps the interest going into adulthood, apparently long after the brain is developed. Maybe the character of a puzzle builder mirrors some of the benefits and the skills or aptitude required to match a thousand pieces. I think it goes beyond that though.

This is what I appreciate about my friend, the puzzle builder:

  • she does not judge me (sees all the bits objectively and hopes to reach the whole);
  • she takes her time to respond thoughtfully to my problems without making them about her (logic and creativity);
  • she sees my world, as well as her own. Our worlds co-exist rather than compete (reasoning);
  • she asks questions to understand (problem-solving);
  • she makes no assumptions about me (pieces the picture together systematically);
  • she is patient and kind (pays attention and processes information over time).

So, it seems that in the past time of building puzzles lies an opportunity to develop our humanity. Or is that a stretch? I’m left wondering if these (seemingly) old-fashioned hobbies deserve real resurgence. It could well be a means to inadvertently developing traits that support meaningful interactions in a world fraught with dog-eat-dog tactics and intolerance. I have no clear view of what the world was like more than 250 years ago when the jigsaw puzzle was first created. But between load-shedding and lockdown, and, importantly, for the sake of humanity …

… I think it’s time we all built a puzzle!


Note: Thank you to SAFREAN colleague, Delilah Nosworthy, for editing this article.

Also please note disclaimer: the views expressed herein are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAFREA or the SAFREA Chronicle.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


2 Responses

  1. Well thought through. Interesting. And lucky you, Alexis, to have such a friend. Perhaps we should have a “Puzzle hour” every day in every school? I am positive that it will help raise the cognitive, analytical and logical thinking skills of learners.
    I have a cousin who owns an award-winning puzzle company in the UK. More than jigsaw puzzles. Have a look. Might be fun for you – and your friend. They are constantly creating new puzzles.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article Alexis. I especially enjoyed how you analysed whether puzzle building has anything to do with your friend’s genuine character.

    Loved this statement: “Maybe the character of a puzzle builder mirrors some of the benefits and the skills or aptitude required to match a thousand pieces.”

    It was a treat editing this article. Thank you for the opportunity.

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