Puzzles, trains and the way of the human brain – Tuesday 28 February 2017

Puzzles, trains and the way of the human brain – Tuesday 28 February 2017

Time, and the inevitable weight of societal conformity dulls an adult human’s brain to the point that we are not truly capable of genuine creativity. Even the most ingenious and innovative among us only appear so on a relative scale. When compared to the rest of us plodding dullards, operating under a false presumption of endless possibility and whimsy while absent-mindedly turning the handles of our tea cups to face the same way in the cupboard, anybody capable of demonstrating the slightest deviation from the societal code of order and predictability are declared free spirits or creatives.

Those among us who can hold a new remote control in their hand whose protective plastic coating has slightly come away at one corner, and resist the desire to sweep the whole sheet off in one satisfying and triumphant movement, are rare indeed. And that is about as liberated and free-spirited as we get.

If you don’t believe me try spending 10 minutes doing a puzzle or building a train track with a 2 year old.

When constructing a puzzle Milo cares not for colour, pattern, shape or even the compatibility of those little nooks and pointy bits that are supposed to bring the puzzle together in one satisfying coherent canvas. Completely untethered from any societal expectation of what a puzzle is supposed to be Milo will simply grasp the piece closest to him and then jam it into the piece second closest to him. A smooth joining of nook and pointy bit, or coherence of pattern or colour is inconsequential. The puzzle will simply bend to his will as he pounds the pieces together with his little fist. Once the mashing is complete, the cardboard of each piece now bent and loosely melded together, Milo will set about assimilating the next closest piece into the chaotic Borg-like organism taking shape on the floor; which looks nothing like a barnyard setting on a spring day.

I sit aghast; suppressing my general discomfort with the whole scene, reminding myself the object of the puzzle session is not in fact to reveal the lamb springing in an exuberant fashion toward its mother, but to enrich my son, and feed his creative spirit. But I cannot. I interject… regularly, offering helpful suggestions like “ah, perhaps the white cloud shaped object may go with that other white cloud shape object”. At first I offer passive advice with a helpful tone, but when this good sense is inevitably ignored I tentatively reach out a hand to guide the pieces together, then more insistently I join the clouds myself, enjoying the satisfaction of nooks and pointy bits that were designed with the other in mind. “No daddy, Boy do it” he yells, as he separates the clouds vigorously and slaps my hand away while simultaneously mashing a cockerel’s head into the nether regions of a cow. Once all of the pieces have been forced together against their will, like speed dating in a prison, a mismatch of colour, shape and genre spread out in a grotesque collage upon the floor, Milo sits back triumphantly and exclaims “Yay, Boy did it! Boy wins!” He then toddles off to explore something new while I expertly place the 9 pieces together without a single error to reveal lambs, chickens, cows and a small boy in overalls, naive to the troubles of the world, enjoying his formative years on the farm. I then quickly pack the puzzle away before I am discovered.

But this is nothing compared to the train track.

Like most 2 years olds Milo loves trains and at any point in time our living room will be home to the bustling industry of partially completed railway projects. Milo loves nothing more than to embark upon these projects with me, although mind you I am only ever rewarded for my effort by being granted permission to play with Percy. No carriages, no cow car, no barrel car. Just Percy. Milo’s train is 12 cars long at least; powered by Thomas, James, Mutombo (from Chuggington), surely far more horsepower than he needs to pull Annie, Clarabel, Toby and the cargo car, but there it is; stretching past Toby’s Windmill, the Sodor Dynamite Factory and Cranky the Crane. And if poor old Percy, driving alone, aimlessly, ever finds himself between Milo’s juggernaut and the next intersection, let’s just say Percy is not granted the time-honoured courtesies of the railway, accepted around the world, that have made train travel such a genteel way to get around.

But I digress. The real issue is not the playing; it’s the building.

Milo’s tracks have no end. And no beginning. They are non-sensical. And infuriating. Whenever we embark on a rail project together Milo will quickly pile up all of the pieces currently at our disposal, so not including those currently in the pram, or the garden, or the bath. He spends literally zero time planning the layout or trajectory of the rail network and just starts building, usually with a bridge that will obviously go nowhere. I keep a pleasant smile on my face, and a soft tone in my voice; for this is treasured time together with my beloved and delightful son. But I am watching him, and stockpiling the corner pieces I know I will eventually need to close some loops and claw back some semblance of logic to his ludicrous network.

I build as quickly as he will let me; designing an elegant figure 8 in my head and executing immediately, trying to stay two steps ahead, anticipating his preposterous and entirely unpredictable building style. I loop around, anticipating his trajectory, with the requisite corners and junctions stashed under a cushion, but as our two ends near he confidently places an unanticipated right hand bend in his track, straight into the leg of the sofa. “Boy finished! Yay! Let’s play daddy… you play with Percy”.

I look at the track; under the retractable bridge lies a single left turn piece. It starts nowhere, and ends nowhere. No train will ever pass under that bridge. Toby’s Windmill lies immediately adjacent to the Dynamite Factory, which makes no sense. Just past the Dynamite Factory there is another bridge, over nothing. Another wasted opportunity. The track then stutters its way forward, like a noodle to nowhere, all corner pieces end to end. Not even his 12 trains behemoth could generate any speed on that straight. And at the end of the noodle? Nothing. The track ends abruptly, butted up against my work shoe.

The other end of the network is worse. We have only two junction pieces and he has linked them together; wasteful. One of the two junctions simply stops and the other embarks on an audacious semi-loop which leads under the sofa (a nice touch) then back round to where it began, it then takes an unexpected and frankly illogical dog-leg to the left past Cranky Crane and then simply ends near the cats’ scratching pole. It ends. No ramp, nothing. That’s it.

It is hard to watch Milo play on this poorly conceived track but if I am caught not actively participating with my second-rate green engine I am swiftly admonished. I ask whether I could possibly add some of the surplus carriages , which are admittedly parked unused on the side of the track, to my Percy. Denied.

I watch in horror as Milo hurtles his locomotive along the noodle to nowhere. He edges nearer and nearer to the abyss. My decades-old instinct for beginnings, for ends, for rules is consuming me as I watch on, helpless. What will he do when he reaches the end of the known locomotive universe? What misadventures will befall him?

He jumps his train off the track of course and onto the floorboards, and carries on with his journey.


Number puzzle


How is this OK?


Sweet satisfaction

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