How to Solve Puzzles: “Dig it Out!”

Today is National Puzzle Day and when I read this in The Boston Globe, it brought back childhood memories of lolling on the floor playing Monopoly with my sister.  I tended to be an impatient partner, especially when others joined the game (why were they so slow to complete their turn?). I didn’t know it at the time, but by playing Monopoly, I was learning how to plan, predict, strategize, count money, and solve problems–all excellent math and life skills. Board games of all kinds are full of puzzles.

By eighth grade, I had discovered the puzzles in sewing.  I enjoyed sewing and made all of my clothes through college and beyond.  Figuring out how much and what kind of fabric to buy, laying out a pattern, estimating what 1/2  yard of 42″ fabric looked like, analyzing the directions, learning sewing vocabulary, making mistakes and then ripping out and redoing it until it was right — the skills were puzzles themselves. At the end of it, I had a new dress or skirt to wear.

There was plenty to learn about using a sewing machine, too. Choosing stitch length, modifying tension, learning how to thread the machine, and countless other small puzzles within the larger ones of operating the sewing machine. Sometimes I used my grandmother’s machine, an ancient black Singer that had different ways of operating–another puzzle to solve.

Usually my mother was busy in the next room preparing dinner as I sewed. There was no hovering or helicoptering from her. When I reached a tricky step and couldn’t figure it out, she’d say:

“Dig it out, Kathy! Dig it out! You’ve got to dig it out yourself!”

This annoying answer–why couldn’t she just tell me what to do?–always irritated me. I’d go back to the pattern’s directions. Reread them from the beginning. Hold the vexing piece of fabric up to the drawing in the directions. Turned it around and inside out to examine it. Match it to the directions phrase by phrase, even word by word, until I solved the puzzle of how to fit the piece.

As I matured, I discovered tremendous intellectual satisfaction and pride in figuring out sewing challenges myself,  I didn’t realize then how much I’d use those skills later on in life. The experience helped shape my teaching and parenting, too, particularly the idea of not jumping in to solve or eliminate the hard parts for children.

Whatever games your family plays (board games, chess, 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles) or hobbies that are shared (woodworking, gardening, knitting) take every opportunity to step back, be hands-off, and let your kids dig it out.


2 thoughts on “How to Solve Puzzles: “Dig it Out!”

  1. Well said. As a kid, I never realized how much math and science were involved in creative pursuits. As a parent, I enjoyed teaching math when baking with my children (1/4 cup, 1/2 tsp., how many cookies are on this sheet?, etc.)


    1. When we took some trees down in the fall, I counted how many examples of simple machines and geometry were in the huge cranes. May still write a lesson plan out of it-


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