Puzzles: Set the table for learning
According to many early childhood teachers, table puzzles are
the preferred manipulative material, second only to Legos® in
daily use. Table puzzles are popular because they provide satisfaction,
enjoyment, and an opportunity for young children to focus on
an activity that has an ending (Maldonado 1996).
Nonetheless, puzzles are often neglected or taken for granted. They are generally
seen as reinforcement tools in the development of problem-solving skills and
socialization. Actually, puzzles can enhance nearly all areas of a child’s
development, notably the following:
skills. As children grasp, hold, turn, and fit puzzle pieces, they
develop eye-hand coordination and fine-motor dexterity.
skills. By piecing together an image, children gain experience in
solving problems. Puzzle-solving experiences help children learn math concepts
such as sorting, classifying, comparing, sets, size, and spatial relationships.
skills. When puzzle solving with friends, children learn how to negotiate
with others, control their own actions, and learn various problem-solving techniques.
Watching others solve puzzles helps children discover new puzzle-solving strategies
and encourages them to share their own. Guiding, supporting, and encouraging
the process of a puzzle’s completion helps children develop leadership
skills. Puzzle solving is fun and engaging. At the end of a puzzle-solving
activity, children feel pleased with themselves. They gain confidence in their
ability as problem solvers and feel willing to try new puzzles or other challenging
How to select puzzles
The following selection guidelines are based on developmental
material and observation data (Maldonado 1996). Developmental
and chronological age levels are derived from research experiences
in solving puzzles within home and school environments.
Choose puzzles appropriate to each
abilities and needs. Two-year-olds can work with puzzles that
contain a complete figure (one piece) with a knob on it. An example
is a fruit-scene puzzle with one to three whole fruits.
A 2-year-old enjoys putting in and taking out pieces as much
as actually fitting a piece in its space. Manipulating the pieces—turning
them, trying to fit them in, and so forth—is cause for
engagement. Activity is the satisfaction at this age.
The knob is an attraction as well as an aid. Knobbed puzzles
help with small-finger coordination. Manipulating the knobs strengthens
the pincer grip—thumb and index fingers meeting around
an object—that will later be used for writing.
Piaget would view the use of single-object puzzles as enhancing
eye-hand coordination and the identification and naming of objects
(Piaget 1954; Lavatelli 1970). Vygotsky would see Johnny’s
puzzle activity as the child’s engagement in his own development
Montessori (1965) would place great value on physical (small
muscle) and mental play (color, shape, object recognition). Actually,
she was the first educator to design and use knobbed puzzles
and cylinder insets with young children. For her, the small knob
provided a way that a 2-year-old could grasp a puzzle piece with
two fingers in order to pick it up and put it down. This is seen
as a pre-writing work and play activity.
Three-year-olds still enjoy single-figure, knobbed puzzles. However,
they are ready to have a familiar figure puzzle (fish, truck,
or butterfly, for example,) divided into knobbed pieces. Three-year-olds
can manage puzzles of five to 12 pieces with comparative ease
when the object is a familiar one.
In a Piagetian framework, a transfer occurs from the mental to
the manual to the mental as the child takes parts (pieces) and
makes them whole (Micklo 1995). This principle is also seen in
the Montessori insets that involve a triangle, circle, square,
and rectangle cut into parts, each with it own knob.
Four-year-olds can handle knob-less puzzles with ease. Puzzles
of 12 to 24 pieces usually provide the right mix of comfort and
challenge. Four-year-olds particularly enjoy puzzles of familiar
scenes and objects (trees and flowers, for example) and favorite
characters (Humpty Dumpty, Cinderella, or fire fighters).
Four-year-olds use their basic problem-solving skills or previously
learned puzzle-making strategies, such as color matching. But
they are beginning to make visual modifications and judgments
while handling each piece.
Several developmental milestones are beginning to emerge here.
One is the child’s ability to see complex relationships
among separate pieces that can complete a picture or story. Another
is relying on prior knowledge from previous work with puzzles
and at the same time becoming more autonomous in mastering new
Five-year-olds are good puzzle solvers. They can handle both
small (up to 18 pieces) and large (18-35 pieces) puzzles, depending
on the theme. They particularly like puzzles that offer a challenge,
where “puzzling it out” is more apparent. They might
have to figure out body parts or plant parts, for example, or
distinguish between buildings in a busy city scene.
Five-year-olds move from the pleasure of the doing to the pleasure
of task mastery. They also consider time on task an important
factor in their work. They enjoy setting their own timeframe:
the quicker the completion of the puzzle, the better, promoting
feelings of satisfaction.
This overview of puzzles appropriate to children’s ages
shows that puzzle solving develops through experience-related
stages, from the simple to the complex. It’s important
to note that not all young children have had experiences with
puzzles. This means some 5-year-olds can do 35-piece puzzles
without frames, while others have difficulty with 12-piece framed
As teachers, you will observe and work with children to provide
puzzles that fit various individuals’ needs. Know your
children. By careful observation, you can provide for a range
of developmental abilities, with puzzles ranging in type, size,
Choose puzzles that are attractive
and sturdy. Table puzzles
must be able to withstand repeated use by young children. Sturdy
materials include wood, foam board, plastic, metal, and pressed
Puzzles must also be attractive and appealing to children. The
basic requirements are clarity of image and simplicity. For a
2- or 3-year-old, for example, a puzzle with a whole-piece carrot
is more familiar and therefore more inviting than a puzzle in
which the carrot is split into three pieces.
Another factor to think about is isolation of specific features
such as color, shape, and image. Purple is confined to the queen’s
dress, for example, and not scattered throughout the scene. Isolation
like this allows a child the opportunity “to see” and “to
succeed.” Puzzles that are familiar, attractive, and aesthetically
beautiful invite the child to engage in the activity.
Choose puzzles with images that reflect
what is familiar to children. Figures and images on the puzzles ideally offer easy
recognition. Examples are food, vehicles, community workers,
girls and boys, and animals. Familiarity and identification with
the subject is reassuring as well as interesting to children.
Two- and 3-year-olds understand simple shapes, such as circles
or squares. When children can recognize the subject of a puzzle,
they can more easily evaluate and recognize their success. “I
made a banana!” and “Look, these circles are grapes” indicate
a child’s pleasure and fulfillment in puzzle solving.
Children’s sense of reality is based on their interactions
with the environment and the materials in it (Piaget 1954). Using
puzzles that represent materials and objects from the children’s
environment enables them to recognize, verify, and store experiences
for later use.
Choose puzzles that balance ease with
challenge. Ideally, some
classroom puzzles will be fairly easy for children to put together,
and some puzzles will offer a challenge. Be attentive to individual
children’s interests and needs. For example, trains can
fascinate many 5-year-olds, girls as well as boys and native
English speakers as well as second-language learners. Using train
puzzles may not be popular with the whole class, but it may interest
a number of children of diverse backgrounds and abilities and
enable them to participate in the puzzle-solving process (Maldonado
1991). In this way, puzzles can meet a child’s unique interests
Occasionally you may observe that children are not using a particular
puzzle. This may be due to the puzzle’s theme, complexity,
attractiveness, unfamiliarity, or size. Sometimes storing it
away for a few weeks and placing it back on the puzzle rack can
stir interest later on.
Keep in mind that children need to feel a sense of mastery and
accomplishment to become autonomous in their actions and eventually
in their thinking. Children enthusiastically use jigsaw puzzles
because of the built-in control of error. Melinda sees that a
particular piece doesn’t fit and knows she has to keep
looking until she finds the right one. Successful insertion of
each piece allows the child to control the problem-solving process
and ensure success.
How to use puzzles in the classroom
As teachers, you guide children in the most beneficial use of
puzzles through routines and responsibilities. The guidelines
below are based on hundreds of observations of children using
puzzles in the classroom.
Store puzzles in one area. In most classrooms, puzzles are stored
and used in the manipulatives center. You can create a puzzle
library that changes with curriculum themes, such as family,
community helpers, and weather.
Puzzles may be stored on labeled shelves or in special racks,
available from educational suppliers, where puzzles can be neatly
arranged in a small space. The disadvantage of racks is that
children do not see the puzzles easily. They must slide the puzzle
out of the rack to see and choose one. This works well for 4-
and 5-year-olds, but not for younger children. For 2- and 3-year-olds,
it’s better to set out each puzzle individually in one
area. Seeing the puzzles tempts children to engage in the activity.
Trays are useful when a puzzle is in a box or not framed. The
trays can be carriers and serve as frames and surfaces for puzzle
solving. Similarly, puzzle mats enable children to work on difficult
puzzles over several sessions. The mat rolls up for storage but
the pieces stay in place until the child unrolls the mat to resume
Maintain quality. Regularly check puzzles for damage. Encourage
children to report missing pieces. Nothing frustrates a child
more than to find that the final piece needed to complete a puzzle
is missing. It breaks the sense of completion and the continuity
of the puzzle-solving activity. Some young children even become
upset when given a cookie with a piece missing from it! Children
need to see things whole and complete.
Children also need to know that the material they are using is
of value to the teacher as well as to them. With 4- and 5-year-olds,
you might appoint a “puzzle patrol” to assist in
this daily task.
You can replace missing puzzle pieces by making them from foam
board or wood. Make an impression with play dough or clay, and
make sure it’s the equivalent thickness. Paint the piece
to match the missing puzzle part. Children can help by pounding
the clay or painting the piece.
In some cases, you can order replacement pieces from the puzzle
manufacturer. That’s true with the popular crepe rubber
puzzles by Lauri. See www.laruitoys.com.
Introduce and demonstrate new puzzles. Children appreciate a
teacher’s enthusiasm. When you bring a new puzzle to the
attention of a child, group, or class, you help endorse the material’s
uniqueness. Never take puzzles for granted.
Remember that the goal of puzzle solving is not presenting or
testing concepts but rather involving children in the puzzle-solving
activity. With puzzles, the solving is the activity; it’s
the engagement of the child’s body and mind with the material.
Working on a puzzle with a child requires a minimum of language.
The child brings language to the puzzle-solving process, and
you take cues from the child’s action and speech.
Develop class rules and responsibilities. Puzzles help children
develop a sense of responsibility for attention to the materials
they work with. You can set up simple and clear guidelines for
selecting, using, and returning puzzles. For example, encourage
children to do the following:
Make sure you have a clear and clean workspace, such as the
floor, a mat, or the table.
Check the puzzle to see if the picture is complete: Are all
the pieces in the frame?
If a piece is missing, check the table, the floor, and nearby
If you cannot find the missing piece, bring the puzzle to the
teacher. (Don’t leave an incomplete puzzle in the classroom.)
When working at a table where someone else is also working
on a puzzle, keep pieces separated by working on a tray or mat.
Return a puzzle to its place, which may be the puzzle rack
or a shelf.
Puzzle solving is problem solving
Working with table puzzles helps young children develop many
skills, such as observing, analyzing, sharing, and solving
problems. Puzzles become a significant educational tool in
the development of children’s thinking when teachers
select puzzles appropriate to children’s developmental
levels, establish meaningful routines, and encourage responsible
actions through this activity. What better way to set the table
Lavatelli, C.S. 1970. Boston: American Science and Engineering,
Maldonado, N. 1996. Puzzles: A pathetically neglected, commonly
available resource. 51 (4).
Maldonado, N.S. 1991. A short-term developmental study of bilingual
social and self directed speech. PhD diss., Teachers College,
Montessori, M. 1965. . New
York: Schocken Books.
Micklo, S.J. 1995. Developing young children’s classification
and logical thinking skills. 72: 24-28.
Piaget, J. 1954. Trans.
Margaret Cook. New York: Basic Books.
Werstch, J.V. 1979. From social interaction to higher psychological
processes: A clarification and application of Vygotsky’s
Williams, A.D. 2004. The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History.
New York: Berkley Books.
About the author
Nancy S. Maldonado, Ed.D., is an associate professor of Education
and Coordinator of the Early Childhood Graduate Program at
Lehman College of the City University of New York. Her research
is grounded in children’s thinking, curriculum and development.
She has researched children’s jigsaw puzzles and their
relationship to children’s thinking skills for the last
20 years, and is currently working on a book,