I can clearly remember sitting down with my daughter to solve a peg puzzle when she just turned two years old. She grew so frustrated because she could not decide whether or not she wanted help; she desperately wanted to solve it alone, but also was crumbling inside because she felt it was too hard for her to do so. Flash forward to two years later, I sat with the same puzzle and my son and experienced an entirely different scene. He was calm—I’d even say breezy—about moving the pieces around, simply choosing another one until he found a piece that fit. He was seemingly unattached to the outcome, but also very focused and independently entertained.
I share these stories with you because at the core of them both runs my very strong belief in the power of puzzle play for children—starting even from a very young age. No two children are the same, not even your own, and so their trajectory for learning and growth will undoubtedly vary; that said, offering your children a variety of appropriate and good-quality puzzles can help support very many different aspects of development every step of the way. Here, I will share several reasons puzzles are good for children and then I will also share some helpful strategies to use with regard to puzzles.
Puzzles support cognitive and physical skill development. Children are required to develop their sense of spatial awareness as they work to understand the position of each piece in relation to the others. Furthermore, they naturally build their problem solving skills with each trial and error—something puzzles inherently provide ample opportunities for.
Additionally, puzzles also help reinforce shape recognition (which extends beyond the common shapes we know to the shapes of the pieces in each particular puzzle), a skill that serves as a foundation for being able to integrate information, apply conceptual reasoning, and use abstract thinking.
Puzzles also help children build their concentration skills along with their memory retention skills as they often return to the same ones and solve them from details they can recall from prior experiences.
Furthermore, puzzles help children to strengthen their fine motor skills as they manipulate puzzle pieces with their fingers and it also fosters improvement in hand-eye-coordination as they need to visualize where a piece will go and then physically move it there.
Puzzles support socio-emotional skill development . Puzzles provides lots of opportunities to make mistakes—and they also provide lots of opportunities to push past feelings of defeat and frustration and to persevere, an invaluable lesson to children when both experienced first-hand AND when modeled by an adult. Experiencing the sometimes big emotions that come with puzzle solving within the safety of one’s own home allows children to express themselves and learn strategies to cope. Additionally, working on puzzles with others promotes vocabulary development, conversational skills, and teamwork. Children and adults can strategize with one another and reap the benefits of working with others when puzzles are completed.
Tips for puzzle play
- Put one out at a time. So often puzzles are stored in bins with the loose bits all over or on puzzle racks stacked neatly yet practically out of sight. I’d recommend choosing one puzzle at a time to leave out in a place that is within reach of the child and in a place where he can see it. Either take the pieces out and place them in a shallow bin, tray or basket or set it out completed without much distraction around it. This allows the child to focus only on one puzzle at a time and gives you the opportunity to “rotate” amongst your puzzle choices, thereby limiting boredom with one and invigorating interest in others once put into rotation.
- Choose high-quality puzzles like Londji Brand sold by Norman and Jules. I’ve brought in many different types and brands of puzzles into my own home and I’ve seen many in my line of work, but my hands-down favorite brand is Londji—a company based out of Barcelona whose mission is to spark the imaginations of everyone, kids and adults alike. Londji puzzles carried by Norman and Jules are a work of art; each is designed with incredible patterns, designs, and colors and is made out of sturdy, environmentally friendly, kid-safe materials. Not only do their designs ignite inspiration, but they also support learning in a variety of ways from counting, the arts, geography, and social studies depending on the puzzle. I bought one puzzle for my children for Christmas and just got two more. I honestly want the entire collection because they’re so stunning and practical—the ballerina one is next on my list.
- Let go of any expectations of your child. Meet him where he is, not where you think he should be. So often, adults come into puzzle play with a “plan.” We have ideas of how to solve the puzzle and sometimes unknowingly (or purposely) impress those ideas upon our children. Understand that puzzles are typically handled in a variety of ways among children; one child may find them particularly fun and interesting, while others may find them entirely frustrating or even boring.
- Use positive language. As a special educator and a mom of two strong-willed kids, I am a firm believer in using positive parenting strategies with kids, especially simple sentences that are just framed positively. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t get frustrated, it’s just a puzzle” you may want to try, “I see you’re getting really frustrated. You’re working so hard and you can’t quite seem to get the piece to fit just yet. I get frustrated doing puzzles, too, sometimes.” Validating feelings rather than pushing them aside can help children to feel heard which consequently allows them to move their way through the feeling and onto the next one. Another example: instead of saying, “Let’s do it my way, I don’t think it will work that way” try saying, “Hmm... that is an interesting idea. Let’s try it out and see if it works. I may have another idea about this, too.” Allow children the chance to explore their own perceptions and ideas before showing them yours; this further instills their willingness to try without fear of failure or judgement and also gives them a chance to take risks, assert their will, and show autonomy.
- Make time for it. Let’s face it, puzzles generally aren’t a child’s “go-to” choice when it comes to an activity. I suggest making it a routine part of your day. For example, designate a “quiet time” of each day (perhaps what used to be nap time, right before nap time, or just before bed) and present your child a choice between a book and a puzzle. Making puzzles a part of your daily routine—given they find them enjoyable—can be a very valuable asset to your child’s development!
I hope you’ve found this helpful and leave reading this with some inspiration to implement quality puzzle play into your home! And don’t forget to shop Londji at Norman and Jules to snag my favs!
About Amanda Motisi
As a young child, I always found writing to be a really helpful way for me to process experiences, conversations, problems, and relationships in my life. I often wrote letters to people I was close to and found that I was able to better communicate myself with words on paper than words in person sometimes. Growing up, I found comfort in writing assignments at school and oddly enjoyed working on interesting research projects or free-writing tasks.
Now, as an adult, I still turn to writing as a means of therapy and since becoming a mother, I have found it a very useful tool for me to express myself and, more importantly, help other women to do the same.
I write to unite women in our journey here together. I write to encourage women to better themselves from a place of self-love so they can be the best moms they can be. I write to share my experience as a special education teacher coupled with research regarding my own positive parenting beliefs in an effort to provide a helping hand and alternative perspectives for those looking for them. And most recently, I’ve been writing to share my unwavering belief in the power of open-ended play on the learning and development of children.
I am a real mom just like so many of you reading this and I care about our well-being and the future of our children. I believe in us and I believe in the power of writing. I believe in our stories and in the strength of our compassion for one another. I believe in you.