The American Academy of Pediatrics defines early childhood as the ages between one and five years, encompassing the toddler and pre-school periods. Early childhood development occurs rapidly and is widely recognized as extremely important in setting the foundation for future learning, including the social, cognitive, and motor skills needed to handle the demands of pre-school and kindergarten. During these formative years, parents and other caring people in their lives, have the ability to enhance this development by wisely choosing activities that stimulate and challenge their minds.
While there are a plethora of references regarding the benefits of reading books, playing games, etc., this article focuses on the value of wooden jigsaw puzzles as a catalyst for learning in early childhood. Even with the many electronic gizmos and gadgets, oftentimes children are attracted to simple things like a bouncy ball, interesting book and well designed, intriguing jigsaw puzzles.
The benefits of jigsaw puzzles can be grouped into the two early childhood periods, toddler (ages 1-3) and preschool (ages 3-5).
Toddlers should be given jigsaw puzzles having large pieces and with simple content. As they master the simpler ones, caregivers can introduce puzzles with greater complexity and more/smaller pieces. As a result, these youngsters will receive the following benefits:
- Hand-eye coordination by grasping and placement of puzzle pieces
- Knowledge of various shapes and sizes
- Problem solving skills when they master the assembly of each puzzle
- Sense of pride in a job well-done, enhancing self confidence/self image
- Enhanced memory capabilities, as they recall what they did and learned
- An understanding of the concept of sequencing in puzzle piece placement
- Recognition of various colors
- Identification of objects, animals, and other jigsaw puzzle contents
In addition, jigsaw puzzles offer opportunities for parental/caregiver interaction with a toddler, especially as a new jigsaw puzzle is introduced. While a valued bonding experience, it is also a chance to assess the appropriateness of each puzzle, including whether they are too difficult or too simplistic, potentially frustrating the toddler. In addition, by having more than one jigsaw puzzle available, other children can be included in this quiet time activity, providing an excellent opportunity for social interaction.
Preschoolers will continue to benefit from jigsaw puzzles, with increasing number of pieces, and more complex/challenging content. While furthering what they learned as toddlers, they will receive the following additional benefits:
- Recognition of geometric shapes, such as squares, triangles, circles, etc.
- Familiarization with letters of the alphabet and the concept of spelling
- Ability to recognize and spell their names, as well as simple words
- Identification of basic numbers and the concept of counting
- Knowledge of more complex items in puzzles; e.g. shape of the USA and its regions/states, dinosaurs, birds, marine life, etc,
To ensure that the above benefits are achieved to the greatest degree, it is very important for parents, or anyone else considering “gifting” a wooden puzzle, to be aware of the purchasing considerations noted in the following “checklist”:
- Age appropriateness to provide the right level of challenge
- Educational value
- Bright and varied colors
- Lead-free paints (Note: made in the USA suggested)
- No sharp edges & sizing of pieces to preclude choking risk, especially with toddlers
- Excellent quality and durability; paints/colors should not fade or crack and puzzle pieces & frames should not break from frequent and hard use over time; quality wooden jigsaw puzzles are generally far better in meeting this criteria
- Solid reputation of craft persons; how long have they been in business? Check a number of testimonials/references for consistent customer satisfaction. Are they willing to refund or replace product if not completely satisfied.