Help your toddler learn with puzzles

Mar 10, 2016

We play with puzzles every day and I’m a big fan of these toys for developing fine motor skills, spatial understanding, and language skills. My preschooler now enjoys doing his puzzles independently, but my toddler still prefers guidance and encouragement. They get lots of praise for completing puzzles, so I guess this motivates them! Today I’m sharing ideas for playing with puzzles with babies through to preschoolers.


First puzzles

Before babies or toddlers are ready to do a puzzle correctly you can offer them one to take apart. First puzzles are usually wooden inset puzzles, and the easiest ones tend to have little pegs for holding the pieces and the picture reproduced where the piece sits. Just by taking out the pieces a child starts to learn how puzzles work.

If there are images under the pieces, a toddler may be able to match the pictures before they can manipulate the piece into the space.

Encourage words

Make bringing out the puzzle a language opportunity for first-words learners by having the pieces in a bag or box. Shake them. Ask, ‘Open?’ and encourage your child to say this word. (You might try using the sign as well.) Name the images, and teach first words like look and here. If your child is motivated, try offering the pieces one by one, and encourage them to ask for each piece, by asking for ‘More’ or for the piece by name.

Offer choices

Alternatively, offer a choice between two pieces at a time, e.g. ‘Do you want lion or rhino?’ Show the pieces in your two hands. According to your child’s ability you might accept any indication of a choice, including a gesture, before handing the piece over, or you might try to insist on a word. Keep this fun, and after three prompts give the piece, or your child might find something better to do!

Get moving

To pick up the pace, try a ‘Puzzle race’, as described by Laura Mize at You sit on one side of the room with the pieces, and puzzle is on the other side of the room. Your child takes a piece, races across the room, fits it into place and comes back for more. You can see this in action here. I love how playfully Laura Mize, an experienced SLP, talks with the child in this video! She shares more speech therapy ideas with puzzles in this video. As well as the puzzle language described above you can teach go, run, fast, come back and come to me. This activity is good for children who don’t like to sit still!

Moving on to jigsaws

Once your child completes inset puzzles quickly they are ready for jigsaw puzzles. These start at just two pieces, and you can get ones with frames and the picture shown below the pieces, to help early learners. Keep challenging your child with larger and more complex puzzles as they get comfortable and lose interest in simpler puzzles. Choose pictures that suit your child, and talk about what the pictures show.

As your jigsaws grow there will be more and more possibilities for talk and even storytelling. We love Orchard Toys jigsaws for intriguing, detailed images, such as this space-themed puzzle, and the town floor-puzzle, which we use all the time for pretend play.

There are also wonderful puzzles for teaching concepts, like opposites, colors, numbers, shapes, ABCs and emotions (links below).

Use puzzles to teach spatial vocabulary: at the top, on the bottom, corner, side, edgeYou can also talk about colors and help your child to recognize details in the picture.

When your child is starting out with jigsaws, you can help by laying out the pieces in roughly the right way at first. Offer suggestions, then gradually offer less help. Praise generously when your little one finishes the puzzle!

Recommended puzzles

Finally, here’s a list of puzzles we’ve enjoyed for learning specific concepts, including academic concepts that I started exploring with my little ones once they were already talking well (combining words):

Opposites: Orchard Toys Farm Opposites

Numbers: Orchard Toys Match and Count

Letters: Orchard Toys Alphabet Match, Melissa & Doug Alphabet Peg Puzzle

Emotions: Melissa & Dough Bear Puzzle

(I’m not sponsored by any of the companies.)

This post is adapted from my book: Word Boosting: A practical guide to encouraging your toddler’s language skills, with 365+ easy playtime activities. The book includes more specific suggestions for supporting language learning with puzzles, along with hundreds of other activities, and practical ideas for helping your little one get talking.

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This post is shared at Preschool and Kindergarten Community, The Practical Mom and Mommy Monday Blog Hop.


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