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Types of Puzzles- Choosing Puzzles for Young Children

Updated on September 15, 2018
rmcrayne profile image

Rose Mary, an Occupational Therapist since 1987, is experienced with pre-term infants, early intervention, school therapy, and home health.

Elmo connecting puzzles
Elmo connecting puzzles | Source

When it comes to timeless, classic toys for kids, puzzles are hard to beat. Through puzzles, young children can explore visual perceptual concepts, and refine hand manipulation skills. And of course none of this would work if puzzles weren’t just plain fun. How many times does the average child put together a single puzzle, before that child is ready to get rid of that puzzle? Hundreds? Thousands? How many toys have this kind of appeal to young children?

Jigsaw puzzles originated in 1760 in England, made by a mapmaker to help children learn geography. From there, puzzles were used to help children learn history, with kings and queens depicted in puzzles. These puzzles were expensive, handcrafted from wood. Puzzles became more affordable and were popularized in the 1920s and 1930s.

Types of Puzzles

There are three main categories of puzzles, non-connecting puzzles, connecting puzzles, and interlocking puzzles. Some consider this to be the progression of difficulty with puzzles, but that is not necessarily true. Let’s explore each type of puzzle, and how to modify puzzles when they are too difficult. This should help you choose the appropriate puzzles for your child.

Non-Connecting Puzzles

The simplest of puzzles for young children are non-connecting puzzles. These are puzzles made up of separate pieces that do not fit with each other. For example, a 4-piece puzzle with an apple, banana, bunch of grapes, and watermelon slice. Another example would be a 4-piece puzzle with shapes, such as a circle, square, triangle, and rectangle. My favorite is a 5-shape puzzle that is a house. The door is a rectangle, the window a square, the sun is a circle.

From simple 4-piece puzzles, progress to non-connecting puzzles with up to 12 pieces. Examples might be puzzles with zoo animals, farm animals, fish, dinosaurs, cars, or trucks. If the puzzle is too difficult for the child, place half the pieces in the board for the child. Talk about the shape, color, or other attributes of the remaining pieces to be placed.

Non-Connecting Puzzles with Knobs

Non-connecting puzzles with knobs.  Six-piece puzzles with large knobs, and nine-piece farm animals puzzle with small knobs.
Non-connecting puzzles with knobs. Six-piece puzzles with large knobs, and nine-piece farm animals puzzle with small knobs. | Source

Non-connecting puzzles can however be difficult for young children. If you present a puzzle with six to ten shapes to a child that barely knows four shapes, that could be too hard for the child. Likewise, an alphabet puzzle with 26 pieces would likely be too difficult for a child who doesn’t know any alphabet letters. I often use alphabet puzzles with young clients as an alphabet recognition activity to learn letters. Separate the letters by row, and present the letter pieces for one row at a time. A favorite among my therapy kids is the Melissa and Doug alphabet puzzle starting with an alligator for "A". See my photo.

Alphabet Non-Connecting Puzzles with and without Knobs

Melissa & Doug non-connecting alphabet puzzles. Puzzle pieces on left do not have knobs.  Pieces from puzzle on the right have knobs.
Melissa & Doug non-connecting alphabet puzzles. Puzzle pieces on left do not have knobs. Pieces from puzzle on the right have knobs. | Source

Alphabet Non-Connecting Puzzle

Large Melissa & Doug non-connecting alphabet puzzle.  Separate letters by row for younger children.
Large Melissa & Doug non-connecting alphabet puzzle. Separate letters by row for younger children. | Source

Foam Inset Non-Connecting Number Puzzle

Dollar Store non-connecting number puzzle
Dollar Store non-connecting number puzzle | Source

Connecting Puzzles

The transition from non-connecting puzzles to connecting puzzles can be quite a jump for young children. The perceptual skills required are much more complex. These puzzles are usually board puzzles, and therefore do not have a picture for the child to reference, like a boxed puzzle would. Neither do they have the picture on the board as a reference for where the pieces might go. Therefore first connecting puzzles can be very challenging for young children.

The pieces of connecting puzzles are placed with edges in full contact with other pieces to form the picture, but pieces don’t interlock. Companies like Hasbro, Milton Bradley, and Playskool make 9-piece connecting puzzles, with popular characters like Elmo, Pooh, Dora, and Diego. Make these puzzles easier by tracing the outline of the pieces on the board. Put the puzzle together with the child, and place some of the pieces. Let the child put pieces together that form the character’s face, and assist with edge pieces, and background images.

7- to 31-Piece Connecting Puzzles

Click thumbnail to view full-size
7-piece Lion King, and 9-piece Dora non-connecting puzzles9-piece connecting puzzle, with outline of pieces drawn in to make puzzle easier31-piece Ravensburger connecting puzzle, with outline of pieces drawn in to make puzzle easier
7-piece Lion King, and 9-piece Dora non-connecting puzzles
7-piece Lion King, and 9-piece Dora non-connecting puzzles | Source
9-piece connecting puzzle, with outline of pieces drawn in to make puzzle easier
9-piece connecting puzzle, with outline of pieces drawn in to make puzzle easier | Source
31-piece Ravensburger connecting puzzle, with outline of pieces drawn in to make puzzle easier
31-piece Ravensburger connecting puzzle, with outline of pieces drawn in to make puzzle easier | Source

I bought several small connecting puzzles from the $1 bin at Target. These puzzles had 5- to 7-pieces, and depicted a barn, a cow, an airplane, and an ambulance. These puzzles are challenging! Again I would suggest outlining the pieces on the puzzle board, or placing some of the pieces for the child. For example, place the barn and let the child fill in the windows, or place the body of the airplane and let the child place the wings.

Small Connecting Puzzles

Small 5- to 7- piece non connecting puzzles from Target, $1 each.
Small 5- to 7- piece non connecting puzzles from Target, $1 each. | Source

Some connecting puzzles come with many pieces. Connecting puzzles from wood or foam have been staples of Occupational Therapy clinics. These puzzles, especially those with 15 or more pieces, are extremely difficult. Without a picture reference, they are often challenging for adults, and nearly impossible for kids. Trace the pieces on the board, or make a notebook with photos of the finished puzzles.

Wooden Connecting Puzzles

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Small wood connecting puzzles.  Rhino and baby, and fire engine with fire dog.Large wood connecting puzzle, dragon.  To make puzzle easier, trace outline of pieces, and/or keep photo of finished puzzle.
Small wood connecting puzzles.  Rhino and baby, and fire engine with fire dog.
Small wood connecting puzzles. Rhino and baby, and fire engine with fire dog. | Source
Large wood connecting puzzle, dragon.
Large wood connecting puzzle, dragon. | Source
To make puzzle easier, trace outline of pieces, and/or keep photo of finished puzzle.
To make puzzle easier, trace outline of pieces, and/or keep photo of finished puzzle. | Source

Interlocking Puzzles

Interlocking puzzles, or jigsaw puzzles, are what most adults think of when referring to “puzzles”. These puzzles have a classic tongue and groove that interlock to hold pieces together. An interlocking puzzle is also connecting, but connecting puzzles are not interlocking.

4- and 5-Piece Interlocking Puzzles

4- and 5-piece interlocking puzzles may not be as simple as you think.
4- and 5-piece interlocking puzzles may not be as simple as you think. | Source

9- and 12-Piece Interlocking Puzzles

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Book with multiple 9-piece interlocking puzzles of Skippy Jon Jones.  Multiple 12-piece puzzles from Family Dollar for 50 cent each.Boxed set of four 9-piece puzzles. No pictures of puzzles except small illustrations on side of storage box.Boxed set of four 12-piece interlocking puzzles.  These are difficult, with a lot of white background, and slightly abstract animals.
Book with multiple 9-piece interlocking puzzles of Skippy Jon Jones.  Multiple 12-piece puzzles from Family Dollar for 50 cent each.
Book with multiple 9-piece interlocking puzzles of Skippy Jon Jones. Multiple 12-piece puzzles from Family Dollar for 50 cent each. | Source
Boxed set of four 9-piece puzzles. No pictures of puzzles except small illustrations on side of storage box.
Boxed set of four 9-piece puzzles. No pictures of puzzles except small illustrations on side of storage box. | Source
Boxed set of four 12-piece interlocking puzzles.  These are difficult, with a lot of white background, and slightly abstract animals.
Boxed set of four 12-piece interlocking puzzles. These are difficult, with a lot of white background, and slightly abstract animals. | Source

Although you may find 4-piece interlocking puzzles, and a few 5- and 9-piece puzzles, 12-piece puzzles and above are more common. Discount stores like Big Lot’s, Family Dollar, and Dollar General now have 12-piece interlocking puzzles with the full sized matching picture on the board. They are about $3, and come in popular Disney and Pixar themes.

12-Piece Interlocking Puzzle with Picture Background

12-piece Disney Princesses interlocking puzzle, with identical background.
12-piece Disney Princesses interlocking puzzle, with identical background. | Source

20- to 25-Piece Interlocking Puzzles

Click thumbnail to view full-size
20- to 25-piece interlocking puzzles.25-piece interlocking board puzzles.24-piece giant interlocking floor puzzle.
20- to 25-piece interlocking puzzles.
20- to 25-piece interlocking puzzles. | Source
25-piece interlocking board puzzles.
25-piece interlocking board puzzles. | Source
24-piece giant interlocking floor puzzle.
24-piece giant interlocking floor puzzle. | Source

There are many ways to adapt interlocking puzzles. If time is limited, you can choose a portion of a 60- or 100-piece puzzle, but don’t have to complete the puzzle. Have the child choose the pieces for the main character’s face, or face and body. Reference the picture on the box, and talk about features to look for from the picture.

Visit my article, Using Puzzles with a Group of Children for more ideas for working with young children on interlocking puzzles.

Boxed Puzzles

Look for pieces of specific character, to put together a portion of a puzzle.
Look for pieces of specific character, to put together a portion of a puzzle. | Source

© 2012 rmcrayne

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