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Puzzles in Early Childhood Education: Putting the Pieces Together



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National Association for the Education of Young Children


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When children work on puzzles, they are actually "putting the pieces together" in more ways than one. Puzzles help children build the skills they need to read, write, solve problems, and coordinate their thoughts and actions—all of which they will use in school and beyond. Find a puzzle with a picture that has particular interest for your child, and you may help her begin to recognize colors and letters, and come to realize that the sum of parts make up a whole—a concept that will help her with math later on. By inserting pieces into the puzzle, children also develop the muscle group used for writing, or the "pincer" grasp.

Children can work on puzzles by themselves, without the help of adults or other children. They can also work together on large puzzles and practice compromising and getting along. Because each child must concentrate on the puzzle individually, he experiences a sense of satisfaction as he picks up a piece, rotates it, and discovers the spot in which it fits. Piece by piece, he begins to recognize the picture that the puzzle represents.

Good quality puzzles are a good investment because children can use them year after year. You may also look for puzzles at yard sales, thrift shops, and lending toy libraries. Children who are developing the ability to use scissors can cut pictures from magazines to create their own puzzles. Simply mount the pictures on cardboard and cut into large pieces. Homemade puzzles can make great gifts, too!

  1. Make sure puzzles are suited for each child's age and abilities. Two year olds, for example, will enjoy putting in pieces and taking them back out just as much as they will enjoy fitting them into the right spot. Toddlers enjoy three or four-piece wooden puzzles. As they grow and learn to rotate pieces to match holes and find pieces that fit, they can handle increasingly complex puzzles.

    Three-year-olds still enjoy puzzles with single knobs on each piece, but they can also work on puzzles with five to eight pieces. Four-year-olds will enjoy knobless puzzles with familiar scenes and characters. They can handle 12 to 18-piece puzzles. Five-year-olds can handle large or small piece 18 to 35 pieces puzzles. They move from the pleasure of the activity to mastering the task.

    As children reach school age, they will enjoy more complex puzzles of 50–100 pieces or more. All family members may gather around the table top to help children put the pieces together.

  2. Puzzles should be well-made and appealing to the child. The younger the child, the more she will benefit from large, recognizable pieces to help her complete a picture. Good puzzles may show pictures of food, cars and trucks, animals, boys and girls, nursery rhymes and scenes from story books. Young children better understand figures made of simple shapes like circles, triangles and squares.

  3. Watch for missing pieces or damage to puzzles. Puzzles should offer a challenge to children, but they should also be solvable. Nothing is more frustrating to a child than trying to complete a puzzle with a missing piece.

  4. Puzzles can provide formal learning experiences. Teachers may work closely with children to help them learn to solve problems through puzzles. Puzzles also help teachers observe children and assess their development. While children work alone or in groups, teachers can monitor the way they speak, move, and concentrate.


Additional resources:

Maldonado, N.S. 1996. Puzzles: A pathetically neglected, commonly available resource. Young Chidren 51 (4):4–10.

Diffily, D. & K. Morrison, Eds.1996. Family-friendly communications for early childhood programs. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

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