Early Childhood Education, Early Learning, Illinois Early Learning Project

Five Things Children Gain from Puzzle Play

Puzzles are a classic toy for young children. They come in a variety of types, materials, and levels of difficulty. Even infants may explore simple puzzles that involve fitting two pieces together. Puzzles are available with increasing complexity to challenge children as they grow. There are many life tasks that we do daily that are similar to puzzles. For example, fitting items into a box or bag is similar to fitting puzzle pieces into a puzzle form.

Puzzle play is a great time to build cognitive and fine motor skills, but it can also be a time to build social, emotional, and language skills when caregivers use time with puzzles thoughtfully. Here are five things children learn through puzzle play:

  • Spatial vocabulary: Use words such as turn, flip, and rotate when you are coaching children to fit puzzle pieces together. Children also learn words such as above, below, and beside when they describe the position of puzzle pieces in relation to each other.
  • Sequencing: There are some puzzles in which the sequence the pieces are put together is important. Children hear and learn ordinal numbers and words that indicate relative position in a sequence, such as first, second, third, and last. Children can also be encouraged to retell the sequence in which they put the pieces together to further develop their understanding of sequencing.
  • Problem-solving: Children learn to work through a problem and reach a solution as they fit the pieces together. They may need to learn to set aside the piece they hope to put in the puzzle while searching for one that fits in the spot they need. They also may learn there are multiple paths to the puzzle’s completion as they do a puzzle over and over. When they work on puzzles with peers, they also describe their strategies to one another and work through difficulties collaboratively.
  • Task completion and persistence: The process of putting together a puzzle has a finite end when the puzzle is solved. Children encounter frustration when they cannot easily solve a puzzle, and when they work through these emotions, they enjoy the success of task completion. Working through these feelings helps children develop persistence, or the ability to keep going in the face of difficulty.
  • Fine motor and hand-eye coordination: Children refine their fine motor and hand-eye coordination skills as they manipulate puzzle pieces to put the puzzle together. They develop the small muscles in their hand that allow them to grasp and move puzzle pieces with precision.

Older infants and young toddlers may enjoy knobbed puzzles that are easy to grasp. First, children may find success with puzzles that have one piece for each image. For example, a puzzle of animals might have cat, dog, and bird pieces that each fit in their own spot. Then, as toddlers and preschoolers become more skillful, they may try “tray puzzles” with multiple pieces fitting together to make a single picture. As toddlers and preschoolers grow, they may start to enjoy trying jigsaw puzzles and more complex tray puzzles. Three-dimensional puzzles, such as stacking rings or a nesting cup, also challenge their skills and thinking.

Young children need access to puzzles that are the correct level of difficulty for their current developmental stage to benefit from puzzle play. They should have access to puzzles that they can do independently. This allows children the chance to build their small muscles, hand-eye coordination, and problem-solving strategies through repeated practice. They enjoy the feeling of accomplishing a task on their own as they put the puzzles together and take them apart. It is helpful to keep these puzzles in a place where children can access and clean them up independently. Rotating the selection of puzzles will help maintain their interest.

Children should also have access to puzzles that are a little bit challenging. Working on puzzles that are a little too hard to complete independently is a great time for young children to work with peers and caregivers to build new strategies for solving puzzles. Puzzles that are much too difficult may be a source of frustration for children and their caregivers. Young children may dump the pieces and mix multiple puzzles together because they have a difficult time engaging with puzzles that are too hard. Caregivers and teachers may wish to keep the majority of these more challenging puzzles in a location where children can access them with assistance and a smaller, rotating selection available so children are encouraged to build their skills with assistance.

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project: https://illinoisearlylearning.org/blogs/growing/puzzle-play/


Early Childhood Education, Early Learning, Illinois Early Learning Project

Busy with Blocks

Children learn many things by playing with blocks. Spatial and mathematical thinking are important understandings that children build through block play. As children build, they gain hands-on experience with concepts of proportions and balance. They explore shapes. As they talk about the blocks they are handling, they learn about the two-dimensional shapes on the surfaces of blocks and the three-dimensional forms that blocks represent, such as cylinders, prisms, and cubes. As they build, they learn to organize things by relative size, color, weight, and form.

Natural and human-built structures fill the world. Young children notice the shapes and designs of these built structures all around them. Perhaps you have been on a walk or car ride and heard a preschooler commenting on very tall built structures such as a skyscraper, a spikey fence, or a twisty slide on a playground. Children notice bird nests, hills, lakes, rivers, and other natural structures. Then, you may have seen that child attempting to re-create that structure with wooden blocks, plastic bricks, or even rocks on the playground. Blocks are a valuable tool that allow children to represent their world and share their understandings with peers and caregivers.

Block play also is an opportunity for children to develop skills across developmental domains, prompting them to use their language, social, and emotional skills. During block play, children have opportunities to communicate and collaborate with peers. Children can share ideas and work together to build large structures. Children negotiate sharing resources. They may work out exchanges of various shapes or problem solve how to build their structure when a certain shape is in short supply. A child may need to manage her emotions and frustration when another child knocks down her structure.

Do you want to keep your young learners busy with blocks? Here are some ideas to help make block play a richer and more inclusive opportunity for diverse learners.

  • Organize your space: Provide a variety of types of building blocks and add picture and word labels to help children find and put away blocks in an organized manner. This will help them find the shapes of blocks they need for their structures as well as learn the vocabulary to talk about structures such as arch, pillar, unit, and double unit.
  • Add loose parts: Adding other items to blocks inspires children to play with blocks in new ways. Scarves can become canopies, tissue boxes can become beds, twigs might encourage children to create a small forest. Small pieces of paper and tape can be used to create signs and symbols to enhance block creations. (Be sure to choose objects appropriate for the age of the children in your setting to avoid choking hazards.)
  • Encourage dramatic play: Adding toy animals, people, or vehicles to your block play can encourage children to create stories. Clothespins and cardboard can be used to make simple stand-up people. You might also tape the photos of the children in your classroom or people in your family to blocks so they can become characters your block play.
  • Allow structures to remain standing: If your space allows, let children keep their structures standing instead of putting them away immediately. You might encourage children to write a sign with the word “save” by their structure so they can continue to work on it later.
  • Incorporate technology: Help children use a video camera, digital camera, or other recording device to document their creations. You can interview the children and ask them to describe their structures. Try rebuilding a previous creation or creating a diagram that shows the design of a structure you built.

Build, break down, and build again! For more ideas and information to help you get your young learners busy with blocks, check out the resources from the Illinois Early Learning Project website.

(Originally written for the Illinois Early Learning Project https://illinoisearlylearning.org/blogs/growing/busy-blocks/)