We love puzzles for playtime, and while many people feel inclined to wait until about babies are a year old to bring them out, we find that babies as young as 8 months old can already work with certain kinds of puzzles.
Babies are often curious about recessed puzzles which have large knob wooden pieces that fit into specific slots on a board and feature different knob sizes that are easy to manipulate. Even if babies are too young to put the pieces back in the right place (the lobster in the lobster “hole/slot”), pulling them out and handling them helps in so many ways such as hand-eye coordination and finger manipulation from full palmar grasp to tripod grasp to a more sophisticated pincer grasp.
These are some of the advantages of encouraging babies to handle and play with puzzles:
- Build fine motor skills by grabbing pieces by the handle, knob or peg.
- Develop hand-eye coordination that will create a cerebral/intellectual problem-solving learning environment.
- Exercise core rotation and side-sitting when puzzle is placed off from the center. Core rotation is very important for strengthening abdominals and core muscles. Applying upper body weight over one arm during side-sitting and reaching for a puzzle piece will enhance the next most important milestone—crawling.
- Verbal skills can also be encouraged as parents model sounds when handling specific puzzle images; for example, while using a farm animal puzzle set with a cow image, caregivers can say a “MOO” sound for an 8 month old; “COW” word for an 18 month old; “WHITE COW” for a two year old.
In many ways we find that a baby playing with puzzles is actually doing Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy and Speech Therapy (PT, OT, ST), all in one!
From this point forward the possibilities are endless and puzzles continue to be amazing toys and exploring tools for children and grown-ups of all ages. Older toddlers can begin to use their imagination, pretend play, count and sort into categories (shapes, animals, fruits, etc.). They can also learn how to put basic jigsaw puzzles together. Preschoolers love the challenge of more pieces in their jigsaw puzzles and oversized floor puzzles, and they can also practice teamwork when working as a group on the bigger puzzles.
I recently spent a few days at a sunny Florida beach with some friends and the central entertainment was a 1,000 piece puzzle which featured a beautifully illustrated map of Florida complete with county and city names and full of highlights of our State. Grown-ups spent hours chatting over coffee and piecing together our major highways, while children loved seeing manatees, alligators and flamingos slowly come together, and this was a great reminder of the fabulous stimulation that puzzles provide for all ages and the whole family from siblings to grandparents.
Happy puzzle playing!