Charlie can’t get enough of puzzles these days! We’ve been doing them almost every day for 2 months or so now, and they’ve really helped his cognitive and motor skill development. Best of all, he can spend an hour by himself quietly doing puzzles by himself. That sort of hands-off parenting moment is a true blessing when you have two kids!

I have to admit: at first, I thought that maybe it was too soon for Charlie to get into jigsaw puzzles (he was 34 months). We had tried them in the past, and he just wasn’t into them. Puzzles require a pretty solid attention span, and pretty big dose of problem solving skills too. And even if Charlie pulled both off and figured out where a puzzle piece should go, I could see that he sometimes struggled with the fine motor skills necessary to put together puzzles. If he assembled two sections of a puzzle and then wanted to “connect” the two to each other, for example, that usually ended in real frustration and sometimes tears.

It was around that time that two things happened. First, I read that jigsaw puzzles are often given as part of the entrance exam for private schools. We plan on sending him to public school, but it got me thinking that maybe working on some jigsaw skills would be good for Charlie’s development. Around the same time, I stumbled upon a book by a math teacher called, The End of Ignorance: Multiplying the Human Potential. The author, John Mighton, was adamant that anyone could become good at math – and that one of the keys was developing the ability to focus/concentrate on something. As he put it, “I am certain that attention can be trained. Just as there are exercises to help a limb paralyzed by stroke move on its own, there are exercises that will help a chronically distracted brain learn to focus.”

The teacher worked extensively with kids with several developmental delays, many of whom developed strong problem solving skills (and lengthened their attention spams as well!). So I thought maybe we’d try out his techniques on Charlie with puzzles. They ended up making puzzles a lot of fun, so I thought I’d share what we learned!

1. Break things down into very small steps.

“Breaking concepts and skills into steps is often necessary even with more able students.” – John Mighton

We started with a really simple puzzle with 12 nice-sized puzzle pieces. Then we started with the basics:

* Getting the puzzle pieces out of the box
* Flipping them all over, then spreading the pieces out
* Grouping the pieces together by color (or by characters he recognized)

Once we had the pieces spread out and grouped together, we would start to put them together. We would always start by pulling out any faces we saw, and doing those together. The brain has special powerful circuitry that it uses to identify faces, so I figure that’d be a good place to start. Once we’ve put together the face, we slowly add one piece at a time to extend the face to the neck, the body, the arms, and the legs.

After we finish all that, Charlie would usually stop and ask me for help on what to do next. So we started sequencing the major areas of the puzzle and doing them in the same order over and over. For example, here’s a puzzle we’ve been working on lately:

Ravensburger Little Knights puzzle

First, we put together the faces of all the little boys (the boy on the horse, and the two boys in the corner). Then we collect all the horse pieces and he will put together the horse. Then Charlie will connect the horse section to the two little boys. After that, we’ll collect all the puzzle pieces for the bird and do that. Then we’ll do the same for the castle on the left side. Then we’ll add the dragon on the right side.

Basically what we’ve done is transform a 60 piece puzzle into a series of 12 piece puzzles. It really helps keep Charlie focused and gives him a series of intermediate wins! We always celebrate after we’ve finished a particular section of the puzzle… he loves it!

2. Practice the core motor skills over and over

The core motor skills for puzzles weren’t as bad as I had feared:

* Turning each piece to assess fit
* Connecting two pieces with each other
* Connecting two completed sections with each other

In the beginning, Charlie would try and fit one piece with another piece and if the two pieces didn’t immediately fit together… he would just discard the piece in frustration. It took some time for him to understand that he could turn the puzzle piece 90 degrees and try it another way.

Once he put that cognitive skill together with the fine motor skills, his puzzle solving improved tremendously!

3. Start from the bottom with the small steps, and don’t necessarily focus on the higher-level abstractions.

“The brain can acquire new abilities that emerge suddenly and dramatically from a series of small conceptual advances.” – John Mighton

I started off trying to teach Charlie “general puzzle skills” that would let him solve any puzzle. Along those lines, I went over high-level top-down concepts like showing Charlie the picture of the solved jigsaw puzzle on the box and encouraging him to look at the big picture and use that as a guide. That totally failed. So then I really emphasized edge pieces vs corner pieces vs middle pieces… and how he should solve the edge pieces first, and then do the middle pieces later. That also failed. (To this day, he still tries to fit edge pieces where middle pieces should go.)

I guess I was pushing him to think like an adult, and pushing on the conceptual skills. According to Dr. Mighton, a lot of educators go with this approach. What he recommends is to really focus on building the basic steps, and then working in the concepts now and then. Then the student’s mind will often put these skills together in ways that surprise you!

I saw an example of this early on. I had been trying to show Charlie how to take a puzzle piece and move it over a whole row of possible gaps that might fit its rounded tab… basically trying out that one piece in a variety of holes along the way. He really struggled with this idea, and preferred just to check each piece against one other piece. Then one day, he just “got it.” I noticed that he was rapidly moving one piece against a whole row of possible corresponding gaps… and as soon as he saw a possible fit, he was putting it down. I was so proud of him! It was a big conceptual jump for him, and enabled him to save a lot of time.


I think that puzzles really improved his ability to concentrate!  Charlie started off doing 12-piece puzzles with a lot of help from mom and dad, and has now progressed to the point where he can do 60-piece puzzles by himself.  Best of all, it chews up huge sums of his time on the weekend so Mrs. Bee and I can cook, clean and do the dishes. More than anything else we’ve done recently, it’s helped us survive having two kids!

Puzzles have been a lot of work and a lot of practice, but the results have definitely been worth it! If you’re thinking about trying out jigsaw puzzles, definitely give it a try. Mrs. Bee is going to write a review of all the puzzles we’ve tried to far, so stay tuned if you’re interested!

Have you done jigsaw puzzles with your little one? How did it go over?