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Give puzzles a chance!

A favourite classic toy of educators and parents alike, one might think puzzles are simple since all you have to do is put some pieces together to make a whole. However despite their apparent simplicity, puzzles are a great learning tool that teaches little kids many essential life skills. What are they?

Discover below 11 advantages of this educational toy for your child’s development as well as some practical tips.

Concentration

Professionals in the field of child development state that you can expect your little one to concentrate for about 2-5 minutes times their age. That means a 3-year-old might be able to concentrate on an activity for 6 to 15 minutes while a 4-year-old might last 8 to 20 minutes.

Puzzles are the perfect tools to increase these concentration spans in children. Paying attention means possessing the ability to focus on one thing for a stretch of time. Working on a puzzle until completion does in fact give children the opportunity to work on one task, uninterrupted.

However to get the full concentration benefit from puzzles, care-givers should choose ones that are age-appropriate. If it’s too difficult, your child will get impatient and give up whilst puzzles that are too easy don’t provide enough challenge to boost your child’s focus and patience.

Some practical tips: For one-year-olds, knobbed or chunky puzzles with few pieces are usually the most appropriate. For 3-year-olds, you can try a 16 to 20-piece jigsaw puzzle with large pieces – Floor Puzzles are ideal for this! Older children can handle even more challenging puzzles.

Of course, these are just general guidelines rather than set-in-stone rules. It’s inevitable sometimes that kids need some support to be able to solve a puzzle. Here is what you can do:

  • Start by assembling the puzzle with them or offering some verbal assistance.
  • As your child builds their skills gradually decrease your degree of intervention.
  • Eventually, you should be able to stay close by and just watch as they concentrate without your assistance.

Spatial Awareness

This basically means being aware of yourself in space and how other objects relate to each other and yourself. Spatial awareness also involves understanding how relationships between things can change when one or more of them is moved.

Spatial perception plays a big part when engaging in solving puzzles.

Whilst working on a puzzle your child will learn to identify which pieces will fit together by looking closely at their shapes and colours. They must also turn pieces around to find the correct way to fit. By time, they will learn to do this in their heads rather than by trial and error.

The link between spatial awareness and puzzle play have been confirmed by researchers. It turns out that 2-4 year olds who engaged with puzzles improved their spatial perception skills much more than those who didn’t.

Here is how you can help your child to develop their spatial awareness:

  • Do puzzles with your child and try to use several spatial language while playing such as “turn, beside, above, below, between, next to, outside, to the right, to the left, etc.”
  • When working on a puzzle, choose a space you’re going to fill. Then, offer your child two different pieces, one that will fit, and one that won’t. Ask them to guess which of the two pieces will fit just by looking and to test their choice afterwards.
  • Praise your child when he manages to fit in a piece.

Shape Recognition

Toddlers need to learn to differentiate between shapes like circles, triangles, rectangles and squares. At first, they may think that squares and rectangles are the same. Gradually they will learn to recognise the properties that make shapes unique.

Some simple puzzles (especially the ones with knobs) teach geometric shapes and the outline shapes of vehicles, animals or people.

More challenging puzzles will also require your child to recognise shapes when they fit the pieces together. For example, your child will learn that border pieces feature a straight line and thus cannot fit in the middle of a puzzle.

Shape Recognition Skills are important because later on it will help your child to learn letters and numbers. Before your child can recognise the letter “A”, they have to be able to recognise shapes and forms in general.

You can help your little one work on his shape recognition by offering puzzles that feature geometric forms. Whilst working on puzzles together, say the names of each shape and ask your child to repeat them.

Topic-Specific Knowledge

Have you ever seen a map puzzle? Or perhaps a dinosaur puzzle?

Puzzles can cover many different topics which can encourage your child to learn about the world. From geography to habitats, parts of the body, animals and more, educational puzzles can help kids become knowledgeable about a wide range of topics.

Montessori programs use puzzles to teach children about botany and zoology. Beautiful wooden puzzles separate the parts of a flower, tree, fish, and other animals, making them a perfect learning tool.

By talking about the pictures on the puzzle, you can help to build your little one’s language, vocabulary and subject area knowledge which will later on help them tremendously in school and in their general life.

Fine Motor Skills

A baby’s chubby hands struggle to grasp at a small toy and they tend to drop it after banging it on the floor a few times. Even most toddlers can’t do buttons, write, or pour water without spilling.

The reason for this is because very young children are still developing their fine motor skill. This means the ability to make small movements using the wrist, fingers, hands, feet, and toes. It takes time and practise for children to develop smooth fine movements and this is what happens when your kid plays with puzzles.

Pegged puzzles in particular encourage toddlers to use their pincer grip. This is a fundamental skill that they will later on use to hold a pencil (or a paintbrush) in preschool and kindergarten. Moreover, jigsaw puzzles also require that little ones make very precise movements in order to get the pieces to fit together.

As tempting as it might be to interfere to help your child with tasks that require fine motor skills, it’s best to let them practice on their own, unless they ask your assistance.

Hand-eye coordination

Hand-eye coordination is essential for good handwriting. Little kids must develop this skill by giving their eyes and hands a lot of practice working together. This starts from the moment babies wave their hands above their head and learn to put them into their mouth.

Puzzles are particularly effective at helping young children with their hand-eye coordination. When solving puzzles, they must carefully move pieces into place. Before placing a piece, the toddler sees the spot where it will go with their eyes and then they must make their hands move the piece to that exact space.

Make sure you give your child independent practice by limiting interference. Instead of grabbing & guiding your child’s hand, offer some helpful verbal instructions such as “Lift the piece a little.” Or “Wiggle the piece a bit until it fits.”

Problem Solving Skills

In a jigsaw puzzle the pieces are all mixed up, and must be organized and assembled. This represents a basic problem and thus creates a chance to learn problem solving skills.

Care-givers and educators can assist children to complete puzzles by teaching them strategies. Here are some strategies to try:

  • After putting a puzzle out, tell your little one to turn all of the pieces over so that the picture side of all pieces is facing up.
  • Demonstrate to your child how to identify edge pieces and put the border of the puzzle together first.
  • Show the child how to sort the pieces by colour or object - for example, if there’s a red flower in the puzzle, look for red pieces and put them together in a pile.

These sorting strategies teach kids to break down a large task into smaller ones which is a very important problem solving skill useful for life. Children must also make decisions when putting puzzle pieces together. What if a piece won’t fit? Suggest that they turn the piece around, or save it for later. Slowly your little one will learn when to keep trying and when to set a piece aside.

Language

Language development experts all agree that children need to be spoken to all the time, especially during their early years of life. When you speak to your little one, you expose them to new vocabulary. The number of words your little one hears may be directly related to the repertoire of their vocabulary later on.

After completing a puzzle, children are typically interested to learn about the assembled picture. They talk with their parents and ask questions about things they see in the puzzle like the different animals and plants. This helps them learn new words and develop their speech.

As a parent, you can also take the opportunity to play some language games such as:

  • Ask your little one to point to items of different colours or to identify different objects and then to talk about them.
  • With the puzzle fully assembled, ask your child to specify the quantity or type of a certain object in the image. For instance, you might inquire “how many animals do you see?” or “what animals are there?”
  • Ask your kid to describe what they’re doing whilst assembling the puzzle. For example, they might say “I’m picking up a green piece and I think it fits with the grass.”

Memory

Puzzles keep your child’s mind active and working and is especially beneficial for developing short term memory.

Why is that?

A child might be assembling a puzzle, when a flash of a colour on a piece reminds her of a colour she already saw. She quickly locates the other piece and puts the two together. Repetitive experiences like this can actually increase the speed of brain connections making it more efficient.

Moreover since kids often assemble the same puzzle more than once, they might also recall which pieces go together. This is an additional way how their memories are boosted.

Here are two activities one can implement to further build your child’s memory:

  • Let your little one practise doing the same puzzle several times. Each time, set a stopwatch to see how quickly they can complete the puzzle and gradually their speed should improve.
  • When the puzzle is ready, tell your child to look at the image for one minute, then to close their eyes or turn around. Ask them questions about the puzzle to see how much they remember. For example, you might ask, “What colour are the flowers?”

Self-Esteem

There’s something very satisfying about solving a puzzle. All of the pieces are fitting together perfectly showing a beautiful picture. Finishing a project brings a sense of accomplishment. There’s finality in placing that last piece.

When completing a puzzle, your little one adds to their list of achievements which in turn builds their self-esteem. For kids, puzzles offer a rare chance to perform a task on their own. Puzzles are self-correcting as either the pieces fit or they don’t. Thus, children can enjoy working independently on puzzles. This sense of independence improves the sense of self-worth.

If your child is not accustomed to puzzles, they might find it challenging to do them on their own at first. Lots of positive reinforcement help develop your little one’s confidence. For example, after putting a piece in place, you might say “You did it!”

Social Skills

Assembling a jigsaw puzzle with another person requires cooperation and communication. While putting together puzzles, little ones have the chance to practice their social skills. From resolving a disagreement to asking for help finding a piece, your child will learn important lessons as they work with you, another adult or another child.

You can also model social skills when doing a puzzle with your child. For example, you can use courtesy words and polite language to ask for a piece or suggest a strategy. By time, your child will try out these practices when working with others.

Give puzzles a chance!

The advantages of engaging with puzzles for children’s development are numerous, ranging from fine motor skills, to problem solving, to self-esteem. This educational toy is obviously important for children to learn cognitive, physical and emotional skills, which will be beneficial for them later on in life as they grow up.

It’s also worth mentioning this fun classic toy is a great opportunity for the family to come together and interact in a fun positive way. With a jigsaw puzzle on the floor, you’ll smile, laugh and relish completing a task together. Give puzzles a chance!

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