Five Things Children Gain from Puzzle Play

About this resource
Reviewed: 2018

Puzzles are a classic toy for young children. They come in a variety of types, materials, and levels of difficulty. Even infants may explore simple puzzles that involve fitting two pieces together. Puzzles are available with increasing complexity to challenge children as they grow. There are many life tasks that we do daily that are similar to puzzles. For example, fitting items into a box or bag is similar to fitting puzzle pieces into a puzzle form.

Puzzle play is a great time to build cognitive and fine motor skills, but it can also be a time to build social, emotional, and language skills when caregivers use time with puzzles thoughtfully. Here are five things children learn through puzzle play:

  • Spatial vocabulary: Use words such as turn, flip, and rotate when you are coaching children to fit puzzle pieces together. Children also learn words such as above, below, and beside when they describe the position of puzzle pieces in relation to each other.
  • Sequencing: There are some puzzles in which the sequence the pieces are put together is important. Children hear and learn ordinal numbers and words that indicate relative position in a sequence, such as first, second, third, and last. Children can also be encouraged to retell the sequence in which they put the pieces together to further develop their understanding of sequencing.
  • Problem-solving: Children learn to work through a problem and reach a solution as they fit the pieces together. They may need to learn to set aside the piece they hope to put in the puzzle while searching for one that fits in the spot they need. They also may learn there are multiple paths to the puzzle’s completion as they do a puzzle over and over. When they work on puzzles with peers, they also describe their strategies to one another and work through difficulties collaboratively.
  • Task completion and persistence: The process of putting together a puzzle has a finite end when the puzzle is solved. Children encounter frustration when they cannot easily solve a puzzle, and when they work through these emotions, they enjoy the success of task completion. Working through these feelings helps children develop persistence, or the ability to keep going in the face of difficulty.
  • Fine motor and hand-eye coordination: Children refine their fine motor and hand-eye coordination skills as they manipulate puzzle pieces to put the puzzle together. They develop the small muscles in their hand that allow them to grasp and move puzzle pieces with precision.

Older infants and young toddlers may enjoy knobbed puzzles that are easy to grasp. First, children may find success with puzzles that have one piece for each image. For example, a puzzle of animals might have cat, dog, and bird pieces that each fit in their own spot. Then, as toddlers and preschoolers become more skillful, they may try “tray puzzles” with multiple pieces fitting together to make a single picture. As toddlers and preschoolers grow, they may start to enjoy trying jigsaw puzzles and more complex tray puzzles. Three-dimensional puzzles, such as stacking rings or a nesting cup, also challenge their skills and thinking.

Young children need access to puzzles that are the correct level of difficulty for their current developmental stage to benefit from puzzle play. They should have access to puzzles that they can do independently. This allows children the chance to build their small muscles, hand-eye coordination, and problem-solving strategies through repeated practice. They enjoy the feeling of accomplishing a task on their own as they put the puzzles together and take them apart. It is helpful to keep these puzzles in a place where children can access and clean them up independently. Rotating the selection of puzzles will help maintain their interest.

Children should also have access to puzzles that are a little bit challenging. Working on puzzles that are a little too hard to complete independently is a great time for young children to work with peers and caregivers to build new strategies for solving puzzles. Puzzles that are much too difficult may be a source of frustration for children and their caregivers. Young children may dump the pieces and mix multiple puzzles together because they have a difficult time engaging with puzzles that are too hard. Caregivers and teachers may wish to keep the majority of these more challenging puzzles in a location where children can access them with assistance and a smaller, rotating selection available so children are encouraged to build their skills with assistance.

Rebecca Swartz

Dr. Rebecca Swartz, an early learning specialist for IEL, completed her doctorate in human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rebecca’s research and outreach work focuses on infant-toddler care, home-based child care, and the social-emotional development of young children. Her goal is to help parents and early educators by providing evidence-based resources on child development and early learning.

Related IEL Resources

Tip Sheet: Path to Math: Geometric Thinking for Young Children

Tip Sheet: What Makes a Good Toy?

Illinois Early Learning Guidelines: Domain 4: Spatial Relationships

Illinois Early Learning Guidelines: Persistence, Effort, & Attentiveness

Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards: Mathematics

Related Web Resources

Spatial Skill Development