Learning Through Play: Level Up for Success!

Posted by Linda Schmidt on

Do you remember reading Frog and Toad books when you were a kid, or other books in the I Can Read series?  Or maybe your children are fans of the Brain Quest workbooks?  These series of books are known as leveled readers and workbooks, and they're a time-tested way for kids to achieve success in math and reading.  They allow students to engage with material that is not too hard or too easy, but are instructionally just right for them.

Over the past few decades, two toy companies in particular (ThinkFun and SmartGames) have really embraced the idea of leveled learning, and have appied it to puzzles and brainteasers.  These toys can help kids exercise crucial skills such as problem solving, logical reasoning, and visual-spatial awareness. The leveled approach ensures that kids reduce frustration and quickly find success at the difficulty level that's right for them.  There's nothing worse than trying to solve a problem and feeling like a failure, UGH!  At the same time, the products usually look very fun and toy-like, so kids are instinctively drawn to them. Let's take a closer look at these fantastic products!

Rush Hour was one of the first brainteasers widely sold in the US that offered a single puzzle with multiple challenges over a range of difficulty levels.  Made by ThinkFun, the goal of this puzzle is to slide the vehicles around so that a specific car can drive out of the traffic jam.  The original Rush Hour is aimed at ages 8 through adult, but ThinkFun has introduced Rush Hour Jr. and the new My First Rush Hour to expand the concept to a wider age range.  As with all of their leveled puzzles, each comes with a booklet of challenges (usually 40 to 60) that range from beginner to expert.  The booklets will always include the solutions for all of the challenges in case kids get stuck and need a little assist.  Checking the solution even when you're stumped, and moving through the steps is a great way to learn the concepts, so we don't subscribe to the "no peeking" rule when it comes to these types of puzzles!  In addition to Rush Hour, ThinkFun makes a lot of other leveled brainteasers, and we particularly love the ones designed for kids ages 8 and up. Personal favorites are Gravity Maze, Balance Beans (really great for numeracy) and the delightful Dog Crimes and Cat Crimes.


SmartGames is a newer company that has been creating some really clever puzzles, particularly excelling at products for younger kids. Their youngest puzzle is for ages 2+, and they have quite a few that are appropriate for the 3-5 year-old range.  These products include a helpful panel on each box that gives parents a list of the cognitive skills stimulated by the puzzle. Bestsellers from SmartGames include Castle Logix (one of my all-time favorite visual spatial puzzles for young kids), Brain Train, and the entire series of Fairy Tale puzzles including the brand new Jack and the Beanstalk.

SmartGames also makes a wide range of travel-sized puzzles, and even though we're not venturing out so much these days, they're great to keep in the car or by the kitchen table for whenever someone needs a quick distraction.  My family is particularly fond of the IQ series.  Compact enough to stash easily in a purse or glovebox, each includes a whopping 120 challenges with 5 difficulty levels.  


One of the things that's worth noting about all of these leveled brainteasers is that the learning starts before the child even attempts to solve the puzzle.  The initial set up requires kids to transfer information from the challenge page to the actual puzzle board.  This information transfer is a skill in itself that must be learned and practiced, and it's an important part of cognitive development. 

Here are a couple other reason why I'm a big fan of the leveled brainteasers from ThinkFun and SmartGames

  • First, because the age range of leveled brainteasers are usually quite broad, they generally have a longer lifespan in your household than a lot of other toys that kids outgrow quickly.  This means that they're also great if you have multiple kids in the house, because each child can work on the level that's best for them.  And don't forget the adults!  The puzzles labeled Ages 8 to Adult become quite difficult at the Master and Expert levels, and will challenge even the smartest cookies in your house.
  • Second, they make learning LOOK fun!  It's hard to resist a puzzle when it involves cool trucks, bunnies, roller coasters, or cars!
  • And finally, I love using these puzzles as quick "brain breaks" while working.  I currently have a demo copy of Walls & Warriors next to my desk, and when the accounting or ordering seems like more than my brain can handle, I know it's time to switch gears for a moment.  I get up for a stretch, take some deep breaths, and then tackle the next challenge on the puzzle.  It's a quick refresh that really works!

If your family hasn't tried a leveled brainteaser yet, I hope that you'll give one a try.  They truly offer something to intrigue and engage just about anyone, and we think they deserve a place in every household.


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