parenting, Teaching

Fun and Learning with Picture Puzzles (8 Developmental Stages)

by Laurie Winslow Sargent:

Previously published in Christian Parenting Today magazine.

Puzzles can offer a window into your child’s mind, helping you see how he thinks and problem solves.

I still remember learning about the way my child thought logically through problems as we worked this puzzle together, many years ago. (Ignore the 80’s hairdo!)

Puzzles can be a fun diversion.  But do you know that they also will help your child develop the following skills?

* color, shape, and pattern identification and matching,
* recognition of integrated parts, and their relationship to the whole,
* fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination,
* problem solving skills, and
* the ability to make choices independently (even when uncertain about the outcome) with self-confidence.

In my occupational therapy work with young elementary school children, I often used picture puzzles. Puzzles can be used to teach kids new skills and also offer a window into a child’s mind. Watching a child and having him verbalize what he’s thinking helps you to better understand his ability to problem solve.

Following are eight developmental stages in puzzle problem solving, which I believe children move through sequentially, from preschool through elementary school.  Thinking about the stages your child has passed through (and the stage he is currently in) will help you choose appropriate puzzles for him.

Understanding how your child is thinking makes playing with him more exciting, as you see him go from one stage to another. This also may give you clues as to how your child problem solves in general, which may affect his schoolwork as he grows older.

Let’s begin, using a typical preschool puzzle (separate holes for each piece; differences in shape are obvious), with:

1) HOLE FILLING: A very young child discovers that holes in a puzzle can be filled with loose pieces.  She usually tries to push all pieces in all holes (regardless of color or shape) to “make” them fit.

2) MATCHING HOLES AND PIECES: She now realizes that each hole has only one corresponding piece.  Tends to rely on color  to find the correct one.

3) RECOGNITION OF DIFFERENCES IN SIZE and SHAPES:  Your child now takes size and shape into consideration, looking closely at both holes and pieces.  Finds the correct one more quickly.  Does not yet understand turning a piece to make it fit, however (especially if small protrusions mean the piece fits only one way).   May abandon the correct piece and try another, incorrect one.

4) MANIPULATION: She will turn a piece to see if it fits.

At any of the above stages, after completing a puzzle, your child may be able to re-do it easily alone by simply relying on her memory and fine motor skills.  But she may now be ready to tackle a jigsaw puzzle, with interlocking parts and an outside boundary (cardboard back with raised edge on all sides), using the following skills:


Your child sees relationships between pieces; begins to sort and group them by similarities in color and design.  He is beginning to discern tiny differences between pieces; and may compare the puzzle pieces to the design printed on the box.  Realizes the scale is different.  May not yet understand significance of straight edges on the sides of some pieces.


He now can “see” in his mind, how pieces will look together (i.e., pieces with a black line running through them, together will form one continuous line.)  He sees individual sections, as well as the whole. (ex., clown puzzle: sorts out face pieces, even if different shapes and colors, then leg pieces, etc.)

7) MIRRORED OPPOSITES:  She now does the above, but also with  mirrored opposites. (i.e., a butterfly; wings pointing opposite directions.)  Visualizes how pieces will look together; reverses images in her mind.  Recognizes similarities despite reversed directions.

     Now your child can move on to standard jigsaw puzzles, done on a table with no confining frame.

8) CORNERS AND EDGES (square puzzles):  She realizes that two connecting straight edges, at 90 degrees, makes a corner piece.  Know there are only four such pieces; will actively look for them.  Realizes that only one straight edge indicates that piece will create an edge of the completed puzzle.

Note: Your child may be able to do a 70 piece jigsaw puzzle alone after trying it a few times with you, but still not understand corners and edges.  He may still rely on visual memory (remembering how the puzzle looked when it was completed).

By the end of first grade, your child should progress through the first five stages (and may progress through all eight).  If by fourth grade he still seems unable to grasp the concepts in stages 6 & 7, a learning problem might be indicated.

Watch your child do a puzzle. You can practically see how he thinks as he looks and sorts pieces.  If he struggles, have him verbalize how he’s figuring it out.  Resist the urge to tell where pieces go as you coach him. Model problem solving by asking questions: “How are these two pieces alike?” “This piece has a straight edge–where could it fit?”.  Don’t forget to be cheerleader too, giving your child an enthusiastic “Yay!” when he’s successful.

Copyright © Laurie Winslow Sargent. Contact the author here for reprint permission.

Excerpt: The Power of Parent-Child Play, parenting, Teaching

Toddlers and Phonics: Stimulating Interest in Reading and Writing

My son loved playing with phonics sounds in words from the time he was about two and a half years old. In a previous post (the Ask Anne interview) I mentioned our phonics swing game, which he loved to play when he was three and four years old. In our swing game, when I said “What words start with B?” , he was able to say “bubbles” and “baby” because he understood the connection between the name of the letter B with the associated “buh” sound.

But you might wonder, how did he grasp that at his young age?

I remember wondering myself, Why does Tyler enjoy letters and words so much?  Is it because he’s seen me putting words to paper since the day he was born? Or maybe because we’ve read stories together, every single evening, since he was a baby? 

It all happened more naturally than you might think.

Tyler discovered early on that those strange marks could create colorful, active images in his  mind. He also associated our story times with warm snuggling.

When Tyler first began pointing in books and asking me to identify alphabet letters, I gave him a wooden puzzle with the letters in his name. He loved it, so quickly learned his first five letters:  T Y L E R.

Shortly thereafter, when he saw an EXIT sign at a store, he yelled out ecstatically, “Look! my E!”

Encouraged by his excitement, I bought a puzzle with all the alphabet letters. We sang the alphabet song while touching individual pieces. That way,  he didn’t just learn the song. He had a visual image of each letter in his mind as he sang it. To him, it was just a fun game and I had no agenda.

Still three years old, Tyler began to invent games with letters. He’d line puzzle letters up in order (using the song to remind himself). He’d ask me to remove one letter when he was not looking,  so he could guess which letter was missing.

Note: it’s normal and fine for kids to not be interested in this at such a young age. But if one is, why not play along?

Puzzle games were followed by my son’s determination to draw the letters himself.  At first I hesitated. Shouldn’t he learn all the letters and sounds before writing them–and from a qualified teacher? Did I know what I was doing?

Up to that point, I had not made any conscious decision about how and when I would teach my son to read or write. I simply loved language myself, so teaching him what an alphabet letter looked like–and eventually what it sounded like–seemed no different from showing him how to hold a spoon, or throw a ball, or put on his own socks.

Most of the time I simply responded to his own eager questions, which often came when I was preoccupied in the kitchen or office.

“Mom! What does Dad start with?”


Soon after, instead of saying “D” I’d say, “It makes the duh sound. What letter do you think the letter is?”

That led to other words starting with the “duh” sound, then the “buh” sound.  When my son played our swing game, he could think of words with those sounds faster than I could, and beat me!

Next, as my child sat in his “art chair” (a high chair with a very large tray) with crayons and paper, he demanded that I teach him to write. Yikes! I worried that his not yet fully developed  fine motor skills might frustrate him. But he was insistent.

“MOM! How do you make H?

These questions usually came when I was busy in the kitchen or office, so I might call out, “Two sticks with  line across them!”

He’d show me his handiwork and I’d encourage him without over-correcting him. After all, he was simply having fun. Why spoil it?

But then he not only want to write letters, he wanted to spell words too. This was problematic only because he didn’t know all the phonics sounds yet. And much as I loved playing with him, I had plenty of work to do!  However, he was insistent.

“Mom! Mom! How do you spell Trevor?”

To save my own sanity I bumped up the phonics instruction so he could figure it out himself. That way, I’d not have to constantly spell words for him, because then he wanted to make LISTS!  List of names of his friends. Lists of birthday presents he wanted. He may not have known the phonics sounds of all the letters in the alphabet. But he wanted to know the phonics sounds for the letters in the words he wanted to write.

I actually felt a little guilty at first, because this seemed backward, and I wasn’t sure I should encourage it.  I suspected that  his future preschool teachers would want him to learn letters and phonics sounds  in a specific order. I also knew that a child usually learns all the letters of the alphabet and how to write them before attempting to write whole words.

But Tyler was enjoying the thrill of discovery. He found it irresistible. So I shrugged, and figured when he got to preschool he could fill in the gaps.  (As for what happened when he actually entered preschool–that’s a story for another blog post!)

Your own toddler may have zero interest in the way letters and words work. My Child #2 was as interested as Tyler was. However, Child  #3, while equally intelligent, was more interested in physical movement, so learned phonics sounds, reading and writing at the same pace as most kids do, in preschool and public school. She, now a teen, is an excellent writer, and on the honor roll. But when she was three and four, instead of wanting to sit in a chair with crayon in hand, demanding I spell things, she dragged me out the door so she could swing somewhere on monkey bars with astonishing coordination. You may have a child who is equally disinterested in the alphabet and more interested in physical games.

However, if you DO have a child who expresses very early interest in the written word, try as I did. Let your child play with a wooden alphabet puzzles, play phonics games in the car or at the playground, (see my Animal Alphabet post) and have writing materials (crayons and paper) ever handy!

Play on, and learn together!


Laurie Winslow Sargent

Copyright 2003-2011, Laurie Winslow Sargent; All Rights Reserved. Portions of this article are excerpted from page 167, Chapter 12: ABC and Do-Re-Mi –Using Play to Teach, in the hardcover book  The Power of Parent-Child Play, previously published by Tyndale House Publishers. 

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