I’m always on the lookout for a new puzzle! I comb consignment stores and Amazon sales looking for a new one for my collection. The reason I love puzzles is because so much learning happens when a child is working a puzzle. I want highlight a few of those skills and give you a few tips if you’ve got a reluctant puzzler.
1. Cognitive Development: Matching.
Working a puzzle naturally incorporates, and strengthens matching skills. This is particularly true with the sort of puzzles we’re going to focus on. These puzzles allow children to match shapes, colors, or pictures.
For beginner puzzle play it’s best to find simple 3 to 4 piece puzzles. Make sure the pictures differ in shape and color to make matching them easy at first. Then, once they’ve mastered these, move up to larger puzzles like this 9 piece puzzle. Also keep matching simple by limiting it to a single matching skill, like colors or shapes. To do this, it’s a good idea to find puzzles with simple designs. For example, I really like this Melissa and Doug puzzle, but it’s design makes it difficult to determine if a child is matching colors or shapes. I’m not knocking the puzzle, I really do like it. Just know it may look like your child is matching shapes when he’s really matching the colors (and vice-versa).
A more focused alternative would be like this fish puzzle, it’s perfect for focused color matching. On the other hand, if you want to target matching shapes, look for puzzles with same color underneath all the slots. The best of these will have a simple picture under an identical puzzle piece. This way, when the piece is removed, the child can match the piece to empty slot by matching the picture. When your little one is ready, you move on to more challenging puzzle with black and white pictures under the pieces.
2. Cognitive Development: Problem Solving.
If your child is not yet matching pictures – some highly visual kids pick up this skill around 18 months, others are closer to three – you may find they work puzzles by trial-and-error. They’ll attempt to put a piece in a few different slots until they’ve found the correct place. When I see a child try several different solutions to a problem to achieve success, I know I’m seeing problem solving skills develop.
You can help your child’s developing problem solving skills through modeling. One way I do this is by deliberately trying to fit a puzzle piece in the wrong spot. As I do, I ask, “Does it go here?”, answer my own question with a fun, exaggerated “Nooooo!”, and repeat the process until I find the correct spot. When I find the correct spot, I’ll respond to my question with, “Yeeesssss! I got it! Give me a high five.” Then, I reinforce this by giving the child a turn and using the same verbal routine. You know they have caught on when they “tease” you by deliberately choosing the incorrect spot. It’s fun to see their sense of humor begin to emerge.
3. Motor Development: Fine Motor Skills
Most puzzle pieces require some amount of manipulation to fit into the correct spot. In order to successfully work a puzzle, a child will need to twist and turn each puzzle piece to get it where it belongs. Sometimes kids are fine with this, but other times the same child may become frustrated. She knows the piece belongs in a particular spot, but just can’t make it fit!
If you sense your child’s frustration level rising, consider switching to a puzzle with chunky pieces or large knobs. Both of these options are easier to hold and manipulate. Also, don’t forget to provide lots of encouragement. Simple statements of affirmation like, “You almost have it” or “Keep trying” go a long way toward motivation them to keep at it. Other times, I’ll ask if they want help and, if they do, I’ll take the piece and say, “turn, turn…” or “wiggle, wiggle…” while I demonstrate turning my hand and twisting the piece. This keeps the mood light and helps ease their frustration. I may place the piece almost in and let them finish with a slight push and cheer when they get it in. You can slowly provide less and less assitance until they are successful.
Finally, magnetic puzzles can really help with this. Not only are the puzzle pieces less likely to get lost, but the magnets help guide each piece into it’s proper place. This Melissa & Doug magnetic puzzle has doors that are more fun and frustration. The pieces go in a slot larger than the piece so less turning is needed.
4. Cognitive Development: Building Attention Span
Toddlers are made to MOVE! You’ve heard me say it before, they learn through discovery and discovery means movement. Siting down and working an entire puzzle can be really hard, especially for those kids who seem to have just a little more energy than the rest (do you have one of those bouncing around your house right now?).
Puzzles are a great tool for stretching, and growing, a short attention span. Many kids bounce from one toy to another (or one drawer to an empty closet to destroy or coffee mug to dump over). Teaching children to finish one activity before beginning another helps build their attention span. Since a puzzle has a defined ending, it’s a wonderful toy for practicing this skill. Plus, not only is it better than your toddler emptying your sock drawer, but every finished puzzle is a chance for an impromptu party: When we get all the pieces back where they belong, we clap and shout “Horray!”
5. Language Development
How does a puzzle help language development? Well, on its own it probably doesn’t, but remember “We play. I learn.” For a puzzle to promote language development, it’ll need a little help from you.
Language development happens when you play together. As you play, name each puzzle piece, building their understanding of more and more words. You might make animal noises or vehicle sounds, exercising those talking muscles through lots of moos, neighs, baas, or roars. For a new talker, imitating sounds is easier than words and a great place to start. To get the most of this, when you purchase new puzzles try to mix up the themes. Consider animal themes (like zoo animals, farm animals, or ocean animals), common objects (like food, household items, or vehicles), or their current favorites (like princesses or dinosaurs).
(As a bonus, you can also evaluate their understanding of choices. Try giving your child a choice between pieces. Each time you hand over a puzzle piece ask, “Do you want _____ or _____?” If they always choose the last option, it’s a a good sign they don’t really understand concept of choosing just yet.)
Isn’t it amazing how much learning can happen in 5 short minutes? It’s no wonder, there’s so much going on in their fantastic little brains!
Now, go! Find a puzzle and your little one and get to the work of play.
We Play. I Learn