Since my visit Down Under for Christmas last year, I must confess to a renewed addiction for jigsaw puzzles. I’ve always loved them and a big part of family holidays when I was growing up was commandeering some large flat space, spreading out a thousand odd pieces and then hunching over them between sun-kissed beach sorties or for a whole day at a time if the rain was drumming a monsoonal metre on the roof.
But like most things in this day and age, jigsaws have moved on-line and I have developed a bit of a penchant for finding an hour or so to puzzle on my tablet.
I do love a puzzle. As a child travelling between parents and grandparents, a crossword/puzzle book was always tucked alongside my ‘book of the moment’ and these days, between a spot of Lumosity brain training or Words with Friends on my daily commute and a more leisurely pen-in-hand meander through The Times MindGames on a Saturday, it would really seem that puzzling has become the habit of a lifetime – well mine anyway.
This week, in scanning through some business reading at work, I came across another childhood habit that seems to be storming into the pantheon of grown-up amusements – colouring, or more specifically colouring books.
Euromonitor reports that sales of adult (no not THAT adult) colouring books are soaring and no longer content to dip into the annals of their offspring, grown-ups are looking for our own expression of creativity…and a little bit of stress-relief. The Secret Garden colouring book has sold more than 1.5 million copies and with the likes of Crayola, Bic, Faber-Castell and Staedtler coming to the party, Euromonitor postulates that this may become a phenomenon to rival the juggernaut that was – and is – Harry Potter.
And the nostalgic play trend doesn’t end there. Tonight, Channel 4 (UK) will feature a behind-the-scenes look at Lego. Yes those building blocks of childhood are every bit (see what I did there – every bit?) as ubiquitous today and one could argue that Lego’s position at the top of the toy-maker league table has been a result of an ability to extend their appeal beyond the young to the young-at-heart.
There are many studies and opinion pieces out there about the benefits of creative play for kids but as we get older, downtime like this is valued less and less (although one could argue that the absence of it in our lives makes us value it more – just consider how excited we get about going on holiday to ‘relax’ and ‘do nothing’).
But just as we might train physically to improve our muscles, puzzles and creative pursuits build different muscles, those of the brain. Brain training company Lumosity talks about its approach being grounded in neuroscience and more particularly neuroplasticity, explaining how the brain is ‘built’ to rely on previous patterns of behaviour (or neural pathways). Without challenging these patterns, our brain can lose its power to adapt.
I am no scientist but as we’ve already established, I do love a puzzle and luckily at the end of each of my commuting brain ‘trains’, there’s a little top scores list and an overall brain summary to chart my progress and offer any encouragement in improving the lower scoring areas.
One such example is that of spatial awareness. I maintain that Australia has so much space per person that the development of this ability in my early life was somewhat moot but in London I have developed a reputation for falling over (without the influence of alcohol) or pondering when exactly I bumped into something to produce an emerging ‘mystery bruise’.
Over the years I’ve done a lot of dancing and yoga which has helped this but indulging in a bit of sashay step or downward dog on the tube each day will probably raise a few eyebrows…and definitely tread on some toes. So Lumosity’s Penguin Pursuit continues to be my nemesis but as long as my scores improve, I will continue to work on it and enjoy the few minutes of fun that my three different games each day affords me on my commute.
So finding space to play, to ponder, to puzzle appears to be gaining momentum in a society seeking mindfulness and balance. And I think it’s a good thing. The watch out will be if it becomes a chore, another should in the long list of things we should be doing to have a happy and balanced life.
So let’s create, build, run amok, let loose and blow those cobwebs off our childhood…and just play.