Puzzles are a childhood mainstay. Like blocks, balls and dolls, they’re a toy that’s stood the test of time — for good reason! Puzzles support virtually every area of toddler development. We should note that we’re talking about the old-school variety of puzzles, not digital ones. Screen puzzles are no match for the learning that goes on when little ones are interacting with the three-dimensional world.
One important thing to keep in mind about puzzle play is that there’s a sweet spot in terms of level of difficulty. You want them to be challenging for your child, but not so hard that she’s consistently frustrated. Frustration can teach persistence, but for little people it’s best in little doses!
Let’s take a look at the many developmental benefits of this classic toy.
How Puzzles Support Development
An important cognitive skill that puzzles strengthen is spatial awareness. In fact, research shows that puzzle play in the early years is a significant predictor of spatial abilities later on. Puzzles also nurture matching skills, as well as recognition of shapes and colors (and, for older toddlers, letters and numbers). Problem solving practice is in full swing as a child uses trial and error to figure out not only which shape fits in which space, but also how to rotate the piece to make it fit. Finally, regular puzzle play exercises a child’s ability to focus, as well as her working memory.
Fine Motor Development
Whether it’s a shape-sorting puzzle, or one with block pieces or pegs, puzzles provide endless opportunities to practice different types of grasping. They also hone visual discrimination as a child pays attention to detail in order to match pieces with where they go. While her eyes are busy searching for matches, her hands are close behind, ready to manipulate the piece of her choice and put it in its place with precision. This communication between her eyes, brain and hands develops hand-eye coordination.
When paired with thoughtful input from the grownups in a child’s life, puzzle play is a rich opportunity for language learning. Puzzles strengthen vocabulary, such as shapes, colors, animals and transportation. They can also help little ones practice expressive language skills like requesting (gestures count), and receptive language skills like following simple directions. Puzzle play is great time for parents and caregivers to ask simple “wh” questions, too: What does the pig say? Where is the bus?
Puzzles are challenging for little ones, which helps build frustration tolerance and the ability to fail and try again. Over time, these (along with a sense of accomplishment upon completing a puzzle) teach the value of persistence. Puzzle play is also a great time to nurture a growth mindset by praising a child’s efforts: Wow, you worked very hard on that.
The best thing about puzzles is that we never grow out of them! You can keep a steady rotation of them in your child’s activities for years to come.
You can find tips for choosing puzzles and supporting your child during puzzle play in our BabySparks program.