October 07, 2006

The Moscow Puzzles

It is a rainy Saturday afternoon today. What to do with the kids?

Crossing the River on a Rainy Saturday Afternoon

I like telling my kids little puzzle stories. You have heard the one about the farmer with a pet wolf, a goat, and a head of cabbage, trying to cross a river with a boat that can only carry himself and one other item. The wolf will eat the goat if left alone and the goat will eat the cabbage if left alone, so the famer needs to be a little clever to get everything to the other side intact.

The amazing thing about such games is that if you pull out a few coins out of your pocket - "this coin here is the farmer, and this little dime is the head of cabbage" - a puzzle story like this can often hold the kids' interest enough to pull them away from computer games. Gathering around the kitchen table to work out the plight of a poor farmer trying to cross a river is a wonderful thing to do on a rainy afternoon.

Hundreds of Uses for a Pocket Full of Change

The only problem is to find a good source of these puzzles! What do you do after the farmer has finished crossing the river, after the Towers of Hanoi have been constructed, after the kids have become world champions at Nim? Even if you are a grownup who knows a lot of puzzles, how can you recall them at that crucial moment when the kids are bored?

My favorite source of kid puzzles is a Russian book by Boris A Kordemsky called "The Moscow Puzzles" (it is about $10 on Amazon, and you can preview bits on Google). It is the best and most popular puzzle book ever published in the Soviet Union; it was translated into English by Martin Gardner. It contains 359 little puzzles including simple number games; puzzles you can play with coins, matchsticks, and pieces of paper; and a bunch of things you can do with a chessboard other than playing chess.

The Moscow Puzzles is wonderful - all the puzzles are aimed at kids. The solutions range from "punny" to profound, and they are all pre-math or at any rate all pre-highschool-math. Each section begins with handy "warmup" puzzles to get kids into the right frame of mind. But it is not really a book for the kids to read. It is a book for grownups to read ahead of time, so that any pocket full of change or a scrap of paper can be turned into a magical game at a moments notice.

Posted by David at October 7, 2006 01:36 PM

Thanks for the pointer. As an aside, historically Russian authors were certainly very good with popular science and math. I remember, as a kid, spending hours (and years) of fun time with Perleman http://www.cut-the-knot.org/books/perelman/index.shtml

Posted by: Avik Sengupta at October 10, 2006 02:29 AM

learning puzzle stories is very good
please tell different puzzle books

Posted by: manohar at July 25, 2007 04:09 AM

can you give me the answer.

Posted by: fiza at February 7, 2008 10:43 PM

the farmer brings over the cabbage then the wolf and then the goat last.

Posted by: at November 5, 2010 07:03 PM
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