Puzzles are good time-occupiers when my children are weary of their usual set of toys. As we’re unschoolers, they also provide a good way of analysing my children’s learning styles and introducing problem-solving techniques that will prove useful for life.

Calista, 2yo, August 2010

Children expand their minds when playing with puzzles, exercising visual and sensory perception, memory and logic. Puzzles promote fine motor skills and systematic thinking. They’re great value for educational purposes, and — despite the hype — so-called “educational” puzzles are not necessarily better value than ones with a fun picture.

Keeping a puzzle collection is sometimes problematic, but if you address the underlying issues correctly, you can benefit from the people who don’t and thus get rid of the puzzles they have. Because those families don’t value puzzles highly, they’re often available very cheap in secondhand shops.

Brioni, 3yo, August 2010

Understand how to teach puzzle-solving

Children approach puzzle-solving in different ways, and it’s useful to understand your child’s natural learning methods so you can encourage them in their natural inclinations and teach them the skills they’re missing.

Early on, build a vocabulary to direct your child without actually doing the puzzle for them. I use words like “spin” to teach my toddler to rotate the piece until it fits in the slot. Jigsaw puzzles for older children are made of pieces that have “tabs” (male) and “blanks” (female) on them.

Some children are highly tuned to the visual effects of the puzzle. They will be able to sort and find interlocking pieces by matching the colours. This is useful for puzzles with a simpler image but frustrating if the picture is very busy.

Other children will focus on the finished product, trying to match each piece in their hand with the location on the picture. This can be frustrating if they aren’t successful in locating neighbouring pieces.

Still other children will focus on the shapes of the pieces, trying to piece the puzzle together by identifying pieces with an unusual tab shape and then locating the matching blank in another puzzle piece. These children instinctively understand why the edge pieces are straight and often join the border of the puzzle first. But those who focus on colour or picture will need to be gently guided into this strategy if they are experiencing frustration while working on their puzzle.

Just pointing out the different shapes of some of the pieces may be enough to give your child the clues they need to start matching more pieces together. Look for irregular tabs and funny peninsula corners. Show your child what they are looking for — a certain shape, a certain colour, or something that matches this position on the picture.

Give your child the information they need and then sit back and watch which way they choose to proceed. Some children would love to have you reward each correct selection as they pick up a piece, but holding your praise until the child has successfully locked two pieces together gives your child a double reward — that of finding their own success as well as being acknowledged for their cleverness.

Lastly, remember that some children are not focused on completing the puzzle. They’re happy to play with it for a while, successfully place some pieces and then move on.

Even if your child doesn’t complete every puzzle, it doesn’t negate the learning or development happening while they are working on it. Obviously, you’d probably want to lead your child to finish what they’ve started, but don’t focus on this so intently that you take the pleasure away.

Match the right puzzle to your child

Children’s puzzles have a short time-span in which they’re useful. In building a collection, you’ll need to have puzzles for each step of your child’s development. Build a collection that includes wooden drop-in pieces, board puzzles where the shape outlines are marked and regular cardboard jigsaw puzzles with a range of total pieces.

Puzzles that feature merchandised characters won’t be as interesting across the years (as the allure of the cartoon character/children’s performer wanes) as those that present a more generic picture. (Ravensburger are an excellent brand, even if they do dabble in merchandised characters.)

If you miss the crucial time-of-interest for a puzzle, you’ll find that it’s useless because it’s too easy or discouraging because it’s too hard. For families with multiple children, puzzles are always a good investment because the puzzle that is too easy will soon be just-right for a younger child. If you’re not interested in building your own collection, many libraries hold puzzle collections for loan.

Because children are individuals (which we can sometimes forget in all our comparisons), there will always be some who are advanced in their puzzle-building abilities. Others will lag behind their peers. Respect your child’s skill level and guide them to a puzzle that is right for their ability.

Your child’s attention span plus their skill level is what will direct the puzzles that they can successfully complete. However, because most people want an indication of what is “normal”, the age guide on the side of the box is usually a good guide.

My two-year-old does wooden puzzles that drop in to the corresponding shapes and simple 2-4 piece jigsaws. My almost-four-year-old has just started 48-piece puzzles, as the 24-piece ones were too simple. And my five-year-old has just moved onto 100-piece puzzles. This is just where our family is at. Others will be completely different.

Store your puzzles well

A good collection of puzzles mean that you’ll have puzzles for each age group in your house. However, many puzzles are hard to store and access. Sure, you can store them, but will they still be accessible by your children? And can they pack them away themselves?

If you’re the one stuck with always packing away the puzzles, you’ll rapidly forget how valuable they are, and they’ll end up in your own pile of toys to give away. I can understand parents who unearth a pile of puzzles in the back of the linen cupboard and decide to give them all away because they’re never played with.

Aisha, 2yo, November 2007
A set of shallow drawers provides the perfect solution for storing and accessing puzzles.

When Aisha was two years old, I realised what a nightmare the puzzles could become. We couldn’t keep them sorted and neat, accessible and stored away. Pieces were dropping out, getting lost, turning up in odd places and being carried away by the crawling baby. So I looked around, found this set of shallow drawers at Ikea, sold some household items to fund the ridiculous price (yep, I know it’s pricey). I have never regretted the purchase.

The drawers are turned to face the wall when I want them in storage — so the younger children don’t open the drawers and play with the contents freely. However, the older girls know how to turn the unit around if they want to access the drawers. There are two depths of drawers in this unit, which means that I can store the shallow wooden puzzles in the top drawers and the boxed games and puzzles in the deeper drawers at the bottom.

Occasionally I wonder if I could justify buying another set of drawers to use for storing our Playmobil (which worked wonderfully for a while, but I reverted back to using the drawers for puzzles), but I haven’t been brave enough to suggest it to David.

If someone else has another idea for storing puzzles effectively, please share it!

Complete your own puzzles

Even small children can help you complete complicated, “adult” puzzles. One piece here or there, conveniently left undone until a child finds it and places it, will empower your child and build a love for puzzles.

Complicated puzzles are also a unifier where there is an age discrepancy. Once your children are aged eight or so, they should be able to work on 500-piece and 1000-piece puzzles alongside you and at about the same skill level. Likewise, a grandparent and a child can work alongside each other to solve a puzzle — communicating as equals as they unite to finish the task.

We’ve found that working on a puzzle is a great way to pass time with visitors — it gives us all something to do as we talk over a range of topics. Just remember to put the puzzle up high so the baby can’t reach it! (I had to re-do a large portion of this puzzle late at night after it was pulled off the low table we had it sitting on.)


And now, what are you waiting for? Next time you have a rainy day, dig out some of those puzzles and work on them with your children. When you have a quiet moment with another adult, bring out a grand puzzle and make a start. It’s fun, it’s a great way to stay mentally active, and it demonstrates the natural learning that you want your own children to mimic!