They sell them in the toy aisle, yet puzzles are one of the best educational tools parents and educators can use to help children develop cognitive, motor, and even social skills. And keep them entertained at the same time. Here is a look at the main benefits of solving puzzles for children and how you can use these simple toys to help your kid’s little brain cells work faster and better.
Fine Motor Skills
Babies, toddlers, and even older children have trouble using their hands efficiently. The hands themselves are just fine, it’s the brain that doesn’t have enough experience to order muscles around. As an adult, when you pick up the toys you do it automatically because you’ve had decades of practice, the neural paths in your brain are well established and you can go over tomorrow’s schedule in your head while the hands perform a routine task.
For a baby, grabbing that toy is a monumental task as the brain tries to make sense of all the little buttons to push so that the fingers will bend and apply the required amount of force to get a hold of that cute plushie.
Solving jigsaw puzzles is an excellent way to train the brain and improve motor skills. Obviously, the puzzles need to be age-appropriate. There are puzzles designed especially for one-year-olds, with no more than four large pieces, pegged pieces which are easier to pick up.
You will have to show the baby how the thing works by assembling the pieces yourself. See what a pretty picture you have now that the pieces are put together? The child will be shocked to see the cute doggie disappear once you scramble the pieces and will be eager to put it back together.
Learning how to efficiently pick up the puzzle pieces will help the brain master the pincer grip and the benefits will be obvious once the child goes to school and it will be easier to learn how to hold the pen or the paintbrush.
Never start with a puzzle that has more than a few pieces as the child won’t be able to put it together and this will make them very frustrated. Remember that it’s supposed to be fun!
Your baby can barely tell his nose from his ears, but puzzles challenge the brain to deal with abstract concepts like shape, which the child will learn only in school. Think of the puzzles for babies that only require to find the place each picture goes. Some have wavy irregular shapes, while others are square and rhomboids. It will be years until the child learns what makes a square a square, but in the meantime his brain will archive the information that squares are different from rectangles. Doesn’t sound like much to you, but for a child that’s monumental.
Besides jigsaw puzzles, look for toys that require the child to find the correct hole in which to place a 3-D piece, like a cube or a sphere.
You can help your child learn even more by naming each shape he picks up and trace its outline with your finger.
Space, the final frontier. Your toddler has been trying to conquer space since he was a wee little baby studying the world beyond the bars of his crib. For a baby, making it to the bedroom door is like our dream of going to Mars. And it is much more difficult for a child as his mind is not equipped to deal with such a challenge as it lacks even the most basic concepts like straight or curved line, beneath and above, left or right.
Your child’s brain is an empty slate and playing with a puzzle will help him fill it with valuable information.
Even if you give the child the two topmost pieces of a puzzle, he will still struggle to understand which goes to the left and which to the right. He will use the trial and error method until he finally understands how the two pieces fit together. That’s spatial awareness and it’s essential for navigating the world.
And you will be surprised just how easily a child learns to operate with concepts he doesn’t really understand. A child’s brain is like a big sponge ready to absorb information and file it in the appropriate area from which it can be retrieved as needed.
Obviously, bright colors and nice pictures help a child how to put together a puzzle, but try giving your kid a new one and you will be surprised to discover that the little one has figured out that a straight line cannot possibly fit in with an irregular one and it will take him less time to solve it. Puzzles and educational toys that use the same principle will teach the children not only about shapes but also about size. When a certain piece is too big to fit in an empty space the child makes a mental note on the big-small concept.
Consider a toy that requires the kid to place cubes of various sizes in the right slot. The kid will probably fumble with the pieces and try to squeeze in the largest cube in the smallest empty spot until he realizes this is impossible. This will help him later to evaluate the space beneath the bed to figure out whether he can hide in there or if the toy train can go under the coffee table.
Such information will be later used to actually navigate the world or at least the backyard.
Hand to eye coordination
Have you ever watched a child trying to get a spoonful of his favorite baby food? He can clearly see the bowl right in front of him and his hand is armed with the spoon. He’s probably holding it clumsily, at a weird angle, but the major challenge is getting the spoon in the bowl and then raise it to his mouth. Once again, for an adult, such a movement is fully automatic and you can easily pick at your food while watching TV.
Puzzles help a child improve hand to eye coordination and it doesn’t make a mess like trying to feed himself does. The eyes scan the pieces to find the right one and the hand is then ordered to be a darling and grab the piece and put it in its place.
Imagine there are three pieces left on the floor and the eyes have already decided on the square one. There’s a lot of effort required to point the hand in the right direction, grab the desired piece, and put it where it belongs.
There is also the little problem of actually placing the puzzle piece in the right spot, which requires rotating the piece and wiggling it in place. Encourage a struggling child that he can do it, give verbal directions but refrain from helping outright. If you do it, the brain will lose an opportunity to learn an important lesson, and the next time the kid plays with the puzzle he will struggle again.
Obviously, this refers to all activities that require hand to eye coordination, like buttoning a shirt, for instance. If you constantly do it for your child you don’t allow him to train his brain.
Good hand to eye coordination is required later in school for holding a pen and learning how to write. The child can see how an A is supposed to look, it’s right there on the board, but directing the hand to trace it on the paper that’s a completely different story.
That’s a really tough one! How do you make a small child focus on any task for more than two minutes, unless, of course, he’s set his mind to go through the kitchen cabinet in search of cookies in which case he can devote as much time as necessary?
Puzzle games are an excellent tool to improve a child’s attention span. It’s not just the cute images, after all, if the child’s never seen a rabbit he might not be as impressed as you are with the little bunny.
Puzzles are an enigma and deserve a child’s full attention. Well, not always. It might very well be that your child would much rather play with the toy train at the moment, in which case it is recommended to put the puzzle away and leave it for another time.
When you do get the child to pay attention to the puzzle you will notice that he will become engrossed in it. It’s a challenge and any self-respecting baby is up for a challenge. Especially if he watches you assembling the pieces easily because the baby wants to copy you. He’s been doing this from day one. Watching the way your face moves when you talk and smile is how a child learns to talk. He wants to walk like you and if you have fun doing a puzzle he will want to have fun too.
To keep a child interested in a puzzle, make sure it is not too challenging, but also not too easy. If it is too difficult the child will get frustrated and he will abandon the idea, while if it’s too easy and he’s already mastered the baby puzzles they’re no longer an enigma worth investigating.
As your child grows and masters the basic concepts needed to solve a puzzle buy new and more complicated models, with smaller pieces. Keep in mind that the age group mentioned on the box is more of a recommendation and you’re the one to judge if a 50-piece puzzle is too complicated for your child or not.
Experts say that a 3-year old can focus on one task for 6 to 15 minutes. If the puzzle you’ve just presented to him requires more time he might lose interest. To keep him interested play with him, don’t just put the puzzle in front of him and expect him to solve it on his own. You’ll get there, too, don’t worry, but first, you have to show the child solving puzzles is fun and you enjoy it.
However, there’s a very fine line between being there with him and doing the puzzle for him. If you sense he’s growing frustrated because he cannot find a certain piece, help him, by all means, but keep in mind that solving the puzzle must be his achievement.
Did you know that jigsaw puzzles were invented in the 18th century England to teach children geography? The first puzzles were drawings of the European continent glued to a hardwood board which was then sawed along border lines, so the children could play with them and find where each country is supposed to be.
There are many geographical puzzles available today, even spherical ones which give children a more accurate impression of the world they live in.
Once your child manages to complete a map puzzle you can glue it on a board and put it somewhere in his room, for future reference. You will find that your child will be able to locate a country more easily if he’s actually worked on that puzzles.
All puzzles can be used to teach the children something, from the most basic picture of a dog – here’s the head, there goes the body and that’s the dog’s tail. And while the child is busy putting the dog together, you can talk with the kid about the whole species, explain dogs’ behavior, and how to safely interact with a canine.
There are puzzles that teach a child about his own body, even very detailed ones that show internal organs.
Another type of puzzles you might want to experiment with are those meant to teach reading, numbers, or addition. For instance, the child needs to pair a piece with a 2 on it with the piece that has a drawing of two ladybugs.
Most adults have their own method of solving a puzzle, but kids have yet to learn how to work efficiently. It’s the simple things you don’t even think about like putting all the pieces face up or separating them by colors.
Explain to your child why it would be easier to have all the pieces facing up and why all the blue pieces go in the same pile as they make up the sky.
If you’re using a puzzle with words, have him separate all the images (cat, dog, girl, boy) and put the one with letters on them in another pile.
This problem-solving ability will be of great help when the kid goes to school and has to deal with a complex task that requires a good strategy rather than the time-consuming trial and error method.
Puzzles of any type are great for play-learning. You can teach your child new words related to the puzzle he’s focused on without him even noticing you’re trying to teach him something.
With a toddler, use this playtime to practice notions like colors and numbers, body parts, or adjectives like big/small.
If you have an older child, keep him entertained by encouraging him to talk about what he sees in the picture or make up a story about the characters. For instance, if the puzzle represents a scene from Snow White, you might want to go over the story again and talk about the dwarfs or the Queen. This is a great way for the child to practice the language already acquired or learn new words.
Riddles are another type of puzzles particularly useful to teach a child new words. Start with easy riddles where the answer is obvious, like cat, house, or mushroom, and work your way to more abstract problems, like day and night or the four seasons.
Whether it’s you who’s playing with the child or you have two kids trying to solve a puzzle together, this type of activity is an excellent opportunity to develop social skills and understand the benefits of collaborating.
Children are notoriously self-centered, but solving a puzzle is a great way to teach them about sharing, teamwork, and helping each other out.
For instance, you can divide the puzzle and decide I’ll do Mickey Mouse and you’ll put together Minnie. Ask your child to help you find Mickey’s shoes and make sure to express your gratitude so that the kid will do the same when you help him.
Any accomplishment gives your child another reason to be proud, starting with the first time he makes it to the bathroom in time.
Solving a puzzle is a major feat for a toddler and he will be thrilled. Join in the excitement, congratulate the kid, and make sure everyone one in the family, including the cat, hears about it.
Children want nothing more than to be older and to be able to do things for themselves because that’s what the grown-ups in their lives do. Solving a puzzle that seemed undoable in the beginning is a step in that direction and every achievement will increase the kid’s self-esteem.
Make sure to always raise the stakes just a bit and throw bigger challenges at your child to keep that self-confidence up.