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Puzzle Strategies for Children, Including Working in Groups

Updated on December 6, 2014
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Rose Mary, an Occupational Therapist since 1987, is experienced with pre-term infants, early intervention, school therapy, and home health.

Years ago I was very lucky to hear a marvelous presentation on the use of puzzles. I was doing school-based therapy overseas, and had gone to a week-long continuing education conference put on by the Army in Germany. A very experienced Army Occupational Therapist, a Colonel, gave a class on strategies she used in working with kids with puzzles.

School therapists are seeing children referred for therapy, with various visual perceptual, visual-motor &/or fine motor difficulties. I think there are still interesting lessons for the use of puzzles with normally developing children.

Puzzles are great for facilitating visual perceptual skills such as visual discrimination, spatial relations, form constancy, figure ground, visual closure and visual memory. Children also use visual-motor and fine motor skills to place pieces. If you are working directly with a child on a puzzle, or if children are working in a group, then communication and social skills come into play.

In this hub, I will share some of Col Judy’s strategies, along with my adaptations for working with multiple children using multiple puzzles. I have a modest collection of Ravensburger Disney-themed puzzles. Sets include 20-piece puzzles with 2 related scenes, and 49-piece puzzles with three scenes depicted. There are also 35-piece and 60-piece puzzles, and 36-piece floor puzzles. I have not seen sources for new Disney Ravensburger puzzles, but you could put your own sets together.

You will notice that I do not at any time emphasize segregating border pieces and assembling the border. I was taught to do this, and typically always did. I found however that the children that I worked with did not think or work this way, putting together the border first. I have gotten away from this, as it is pretty arbitrary if you think about it.


3 puzzles with 3 different markings on the back.
3 puzzles with 3 different markings on the back. | Source



Ravensburger 49-piece puzzles with 3 scenes from the Lion King.  Note the 3 puzzles are coded with dots, lines or solid on the back.  You could code any of your puzzles similarly, which could be a project of its own. 


Spread out all pieces face up.
Spread out all pieces face up. | Source

Spread all puzzle pieces with picture side facing up.

You could use 3 puzzles with related scenes as shown, or to decrease difficulty, you could use puzzles of similar sized pieces, but diverse scenes.

This could be set up for 3 children, or use 2 puzzles for 2 children.

You could still use this set-up, with one child, who could select pieces for his/her puzzle from among pieces for 2 or 3 puzzles.

Begin sorting pieces by color, characters or other attributes.
Begin sorting pieces by color, characters or other attributes. | Source

Begin sorting pieces according to color or other attributes.

In this case, brown pieces for Pumbaa (warthog), and yellow/gold pieces for Simba (lion cub) and Timon (meerkat) are grouped.

Begin assembling characters.
Begin assembling characters. | Source

Each child begins putting together the pieces for Pumbaa, Simba or Timon.

Cue children to reference the box for the completed pictures and notice that Pumbaa is much bigger in one puzzle than the other. Simba is big in one puzzle. In the other two, Simba is smaller, but in one, he is turned to the side.

Yellow bump for yellow slot.
Yellow bump for yellow slot. | Source


Determine names for the “anatomy” of the puzzle pieces.  Use this strategy to help children find the correct pieces.  In this case, they would need a yellow “bump” to fit into a yellow “slot”. 

Continue assembling characters.
Continue assembling characters. | Source

Children continue assembling pieces for Simba, Pumbaa and Timon.

As it gets more difficult at the periphery of the characters, you can draw the child’s attention to other aspects of the picture, such as differences in the background.

One picture has lots of deep green grasses, one has yellow and red tones, one has light blue sky.

With time constraints, you could have the child or children only seek to complete their primary character.

Yellow top left of I.
Yellow top left of I. | Source

Again, come up with your own names to describe the anatomy of the piece.

The needed piece is in this case is a shape similar to a capital letter “I”.

We need the top left bump of the I to be yellow to fit our yellow groove.

Sort surrounding colors for plants, sky etc.
Sort surrounding colors for plants, sky etc. | Source


Continue working on completing the puzzle.  You may need to cue children again to reference the box for the completed pictures, to key into the surrounding colors of the plants, sky etc. 

Red bump for red slot.
Red bump for red slot. | Source



Periphery lady bug with red bump and corresponding slot. 


Tall vs wide border piece.
Tall vs wide border piece. | Source



Border piece that is more tall, not wide. 

Mission complete!
Mission complete! | Source



Completed 3 Lion King puzzles. 


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