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The Importance of Puzzles for Toddlers’ Development

Does your toddler or preschooler have some puzzles lying around that he occasionally plays with? How often do you make an effort to sit with him and encourage him to play with them?

Many people offer them as a way to keep children busy and entertained without fully realizing the importance of puzzles for toddlers development. In fact, the simplest play activities for kids are usually the most educational.

Well, it’s time to put aside the fancy toys with flashing lights and music and get those puzzles out if you’d like your child to do some real learning.

Can Toddlers Do Puzzles?

Absolutely, but they need time and freedom to build their skills at their own pace.

They might not be able to do a 48-piece puzzle just yet but they will get there by starting with basic puzzles for tots.

During the preschool years, children should be doing them regularly and should be able to complete more difficult puzzles with smaller pieces as they get older.

Pinnable image - the importance of puzzles for toddlers' development

When Can Toddlers Do Puzzles? 

From around the age of 18 months to 2 years, toddlers start showing a greater interest in trying to get basic wooden puzzle pieces into a board, and less interest in eating them!

Each child follows their own unique path in their development, so there is no exact rule as to when they should be able to build them, or what types they will learn to build first.

This depends on what puzzles they have available to them, how often they are encouraged to play with them, and when they develop an interest in them.

Introduce them early on and let your child explore them, feel them and play with them before you expect them to build them.

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What Puzzles Should a 2-Year-Old Be Able to Do?

In general, 2-year-olds often start playing with simple peg puzzles, shape sorters, shape puzzles and basic 2 to 4 piece-puzzles.

Wild animals peg puzzle
Toddler puzzles and shape sorters

What Puzzles Should a 3-Year-Old Be Able to Do?

At 3 years of age, children will often still be playing with simple shape sorters and peg puzzles, but will start transitioning to multiple piece puzzles, most commonly 9-piece puzzles and 12-piece puzzles.

I have also seen 3-year-olds build puzzles of 24 pieces plus!

How Do You Teach Toddlers to Do Puzzles?

The beauty of play is that children teach themselves skills through trial and error. If your toddlers are exposed to all kinds of puzzles early on they will naturally learn how to do them.

You can show how a piece fits or get them interested by playing with them but rest assured that they will figure something out if they have enough exposure to it.

Starting them early will be the best foundation for being able to build multiple-piece puzzles later on in preschool.

Purchase the types of puzzles outlined in the next section. You can also supplement with these awesome printable puzzles that can be used as cutting activities as well.

Link to sales page for printable puzzles

The Best Types of Puzzles for Toddlers

There are several different types of puzzles you can expose your little ones to. Here are a few of them.

They have varying degrees of difficulty and your toddler will master them at her own pace.

Shape Sorters

This is an example of a shape sorter. It is generally made out of plastic or wood. 

Shape sorter for toddlers

Shape sorters like these are excellent for learning to recognize and match shapes, which children must learn to be able to complete jigsaw puzzles.

Toddlers need to experience things on a concrete level in order to learn. Handling large, three-dimensional shapes is an excellent learning experience, even if your toddler is not yet able to match them accurately.

This is a more advanced shape sorter that is great for developing fine motor control and eye-hand coordination.

Wooden shape sorter

Shape Puzzles

Shape puzzles are also three-dimensional shape sorters but the shapes are flatter and they fit into their matching shapes in the board. 

Toddler shape sorter puzzle

The large foam puzzle mats many toddlers have on their floor in their bedrooms are a similar type.

They usually have letters or numbers inside the squares that can be removed and placed back into their places and they are large enough to provide a good tactile learning experience for toddlers.

Peg Puzzles

Wooden peg puzzles are wooden puzzles with a knob/peg attached to each piece which helps toddlers to handle them with their little fingers.

Wooden peg puzzle for young toddlers

The pieces are flatter (closer to two-dimensional) and the shape of the wooden piece is the outline of the picture.

Whether they are traditional shapes or pictures of animals, they are still developing toddlers’ ability to distinguish the shapes between different objects.

Sea creatures puzzle for toddlers

Toddlers have better visual perception than babies and are learning to match abstract shapes. These pieces still fit inside the base board.

This is important because toddlers can learn to fit pieces using both their sense of vision and touch – by looking at the shape and picture, and by feeling if it fits snuggly in its place.

The more senses a child engages the better he learns something.

Jigsaw Puzzles

Jigsaw puzzles are more advanced than basic shape puzzles and require pieces to fit together.

For toddlers, it is best to still have a wooden base that the puzzle fits into, but each piece does not have its own border. The entire picture, made up of multiple pieces, fits into the outline.

Start with puzzles that have few pieces, such as these, and increase the number of pieces as your child gains confidence.

Ladybird jigsaw puzzle

To complete this puzzle below, toddlers must rely more on understanding the visual parts of the picture (e.g. knowing the head of the duck will go at the top).

Toddler completing a puzzle of a duck.

The pieces still fit snuggly next to each other but since each one does not have its own border, there is more room to move them around, until all the pieces fit.

This is often done initially through trial-and-error until the child learns to spot the pieces more confidently by sight and match them with greater accuracy.

This is a regular jigsaw puzzle that relies on much more advanced visual skills to build. A jigsaw puzzle can have anywhere between 2 and a few thousand pieces (to keep adults entertained!)

Toddler doing a jigsaw puzzle.

Here are some 9-piece and 12-piece puzzles that are great for toddlers.

Puzzles with 2 or just a few pieces can be easier to build than the previous type (with the picture of the duck), so they don’t necessarily move on from one to another but build different types, choosing based on the ones they are able to successfully complete.

As your child gets older he will learn to build more intricate puzzles with smaller, more detailed pieces. 

In order to reach the stage of building multiple-piece puzzles, children need a lot of exposure to them. They will not develop this skill with just an occasional puzzle here and there. Try and make them a regular activity in your home.

So, that is roughly how children progress to building puzzles. They don’t necessarily all learn in that exact order and they don’t all have access and exposure to all the different types (I have only listed a few), however, they do follow similar patterns when learning. They progress from:

  • Large pieces to small pieces
  • Few pieces to many pieces
  • Bold, clear images to intricate, detailed images

How do You Know What Type of Puzzle Your Child is Ready For?

As a simple rule, your child should be able to complete a puzzle in a relatively short time, with regular success. They should need to persevere a little but always be able to complete it.

This is how they experience success and develop the motivation to keep doing them and challenge themselves more.

When your child is completing a puzzle really quickly with minimal effort it’s time to expose him to slightly more challenging ones.

The worst thing is to have a child who is so frustrated with puzzles that he gives up and develops an aversion to them.

So, now that you know how to introduce puzzles and how your children learn to do them, let’s take a brief look at why puzzles are so important for kids’ learning and the many benefits of playing with them.

What Skills do Puzzles Develop?

What is the role of puzzles in toddlers’ development? Puzzles aid early childhood development in numerous ways. 

They have a direct influence on your child’s ability to learn to read, write and do mathematics, among other things. They are one of the best kinds of educational toys out there and should be done regularly. 

So how exactly does building puzzles help a child’s development? Here’s how…

1. Gross Motor Skills

A child’s first puzzles usually have large pieces and are built on the floor. This means the whole body is engaged when building them and gross motor skills can be developed.

Gross motor refers to the large muscles of the body. Children develop their large muscles before their small muscles (e.g. a baby learns to hold his head up before learning to grasp a toy). 

2. Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor refers to the control of the small muscles such as the fingers, toes and eyes. Children must have good fine motor skills in order to be able to hold a pencil and develop the ability to write.

Games and activities that develop gross and fine motor skills are therefore a necessity for learning to write later on.

Child holding puzzle pieces

3. Hand-Eye Coordination

Hand-eye coordination is the ability to perform movements with the hands while being guided by the eyes. A child’s hands and sight work together to perform tasks.

Children need hand-eye coordination to be able to perform everyday tasks, to play sport, and to read and write. Being able to read and write requires well-developed visual tracking skills. 

Building puzzles trains the brain to coordinate the eyes and the movements of the hands.

4. Visual Perception

Visual perception is a necessary skill for learning to read, write and do mathematics. It refers to the brain’s ability to understand and make sense of what the eyes see.

It is not about the eyes being able to see, but rather about correctly processing the information that the eyes see.

A child with poor visual perception could, for example, struggle to see patterns in words when reading, possibly reverse letters when writing or struggle to work with three-dimensional shapes. 

Puzzles are one of the best ways to develop visual perception. Children will learn about colour, shape, patterns, depth perception, etc.

5. Language and Concept Development

Puzzles offer an opportunity for a child to build his vocabulary and improve his language skills. The shapes and images on the pieces represent things and concepts.

These will be reinforced even further if a parent takes the opportunity to extend their child’s vocabulary:

  • How many ducks are swimming in the lake?
  • You only have two pieces left to fit!
  • Where should you put the eyes?
  • Let’s find the piece with the other shoe. 

6. Problem Solving

All puzzles are basically problems needing to be solved. Each one poses a challenge and requires strategic thought to be completed.

Toddler completing puzzle

Problem solving is a skill needed throughout school and especially in the workplace and really does begin during the first years of life with simple activities such as building puzzles and becoming used to taking on a challenge.

7. Success and Self-Confidence

It is very important for children to experience success regularly. It is how they build up a feeling of competence and worth. Feeling competent is one of the basic emotional needs of a child.

Puzzles are a great way to experience success since a completed puzzle is a very clear symbol of achievement. It is also a challenging activity so children learn how it feels to put in a lot of effort to achieve that success.

8. Perseverance

The nature of a puzzle is that it must be fully completed to be built, unlike blocks, for example, where you can build anything for any length of time. 

Few children would be satisfied to leave a puzzle incomplete. This is a recipe for developing perseverance as it works on a child’s determination to complete the puzzle to feel the satisfaction of having achieved something.

9. Concentration

Building a puzzle is a perfect activity for working on attention span.

As mentioned above, a puzzle must be completed in order for a child to feel he has done it correctly. This means he is likely to stretch himself to work on the task for as long as necessary.

Repeatedly pushing the attention span will lead to overall improved concentration over time.

10. Social Skills

Completing a puzzle with a sibling or friend is a great opportunity to work on social skills.

Children need to cooperate and collaborate and they experience the satisfaction of working towards a common goal.

11. Relieve Tension

Not only do puzzles develop many physical, social and cognitive skills, they also provide an emotional release. Working on quiet activities is a great stress reliever and a way to relax while learning.

Calm, relaxed children are always in a better space to learn.


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Activity Pack for preschoolers

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Anthony

Tuesday 15th of December 2020

Question: A 20 to 22 month old is just developing the ability to do shape sorters and flat puzzle boards, but can’t as yet “see” which pieces go in which spaces, and hasn’t developed the skill to align the piece with the shape. Should the parent help the child to fit the piece correctly or back off and let the child figure it out (or not) by him or herself?

Tanja Mcilroy

Wednesday 16th of December 2020

Hi Anthony, my own toddler is 22 months now so I'm going through the same thing as you with her puzzles and sorters. As their visual perception improves, they will naturally start to match the shapes, but there is no harm in showing them sometimes (as long as you don't feel frustrated or expect them to be able to do it). I usually take the chance to develop her language and vocab by saying "put the monkey in its place" or "where is the big piece" while I show her. Most of the learning will happen naturally!

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