The ultimate guide to puzzles for kids

Puzzles address many essential learning outcomes for preschool children, including cognitive, physical, social/emotional and language skills.

Puzzles address many essential learning outcomes

The beauty of puzzles is that the level of difficulty can be scaled according to the abilities and progress of each child. This ensures engagement and challenge for the individual child. For example, start with a simple peg puzzle with 3-4 pieces, then move to an interlocking puzzle (with 3-4 pieces) and increase complexity with more and smaller pieces. Finally, work with layered puzzles for a greater challenge.


Puzzles offer the children the opportunity to develop cognitive skills. They can focus on one skill, or several, depending on their ability.

Most puzzles designed for pre-schoolers offer a combination of the following learning experiences:

  • Identify colors and shapes
  • Count
  • Sort and classify
  • Visual memory
  • Visual discrimination
  • Match shapes
  • Match patterns
  • Sequencing
  • Concentration
  • Task completion
  • Understanding ‘whole/part’ and turning pieces over
  • Spatial awareness
  • Problem solving


Puzzles also vary in the degree of physical dexterity required. Simpler puzzles sometimes have pegs or small handles for the children to grasp to move the pieces.  The size of the puzzle pieces also vary, as well as the complexity of the puzzle piece shape.

Puzzles are an excellent way to practice fine motor skills such as grasp and release, manipulative and eye/hand coordination.


Puzzles help develop children’s confidence as they are able to work independently, accept assistance positively and are encouraged to learn from mistakes.

Puzzles develop confidence

When puzzles are completed in pairs or small groups they can promote turn taking and cooperation.


Puzzles can be used to develop language through:

  • Asking questions to help the child clarify (e.g. where might the head go?)
  • Labeling pictures in the puzzle. For example, “Where is the horse?” or “What animal goes here?”
  • Maths language, for example, talking about the corner of the puzzle, ‘turn’ around, ‘on or in’ the puzzle, ‘next to’
  • ‘Scaffolding’ vocabulary – building upon foundational language that the children currently possess. For example talking about the colors and shapes and then conversing about the scene that the puzzle is depicting.

Below I have suggested some puzzles for pre-schoolers that address different skills and have increasing levels of difficulty. If you would like to view them on Amazon simply click the picture.

Puzzle Progression

Peg puzzle

By the time children are two years old most have developed the concentration skills and grasping ability to place a single large piece onto a board. With age and ability, the child can master increasingly smaller piece puzzles. The matching picture also assists self-correction.

Directional Puzzles

Children can then be challenged by increasing the number of pieces as well as introducing the concept of ‘direction’. For example, in this puzzle above, the vehicle shapes are similar but can only go in one direction. This requires the children to use their visual discrimination skills.

Inset Picture Puzzles with no pegs

When the children are ready to complete puzzles that require more coordination we can move to pegless puzzles. Typically I progress to puzzles that are inset with the picture behind as this allows self-correction

Simple Picture Inset

Our next progression is to simple puzzles of 5-6 pieces that form a basic picture. Support is provided as the children can see the outline of the image.

Interlocking Puzzles

Challenge and perseverance!

When commencing interlocking puzzles, my tips are:

  • start with 4-6 pieces
  • start with straight edges and corners
  • increase complexity over time by changing from a typical square/rectangle shape to a curved line

Below is an example of a more advanced interlocking puzzle:

Interlocking Puzzles with no Base

Next we introduce interlocking pieces that have no base at all, from 6 pieces upwards generally.

This level of complexity introduces spatial awareness such as, how many pieces/inches are between the corner pieces, as there is no base for guidance.

Layered Puzzles

Layered puzzles challenge and help develop children’s sequencing and logical thinking skills. Puzzles can vary in the number of layers as well as straight or curved frame. This puzzle has pictures on the base for children to refer to.


Increasingly, puzzles can be completed online. Using iPads or other tablet devices children can drag and drop to complete puzzles. While this activity brings a lot of benefits it is a completely different activity to the puzzle progression outlined above.

Puzzles for Kids Infographic - Tic Tac Teach