Teaching Puzzles – The Skills Needed to Move from Inset to Interlocking

“Marcus dislikes puzzles because they do not interested him!”

This is what I recently heard from Marcus’s father. We were involved in puzzle centers and dad was sure Marcus could complete the presented, twenty-four piece puzzles; if he wanted to. They have puzzles at home and Marcus can put those together. Marcus has several puzzle apps on the iPad and he completes those as well.

When I hear a parent indicate the child can do the task “if they want to”; I try to pause and think about the child and the task. I have always believed kids avoid tasks that are perceived as hard. Kids are drawn toward activities in which they feel successful.

Marcus is a very smart four year old. He scored average on the perceptual tasks administered to assess his skills. He knows his letters and can form many of them at a pre-k level. He has average motor skills.  Testing indicates impulse control and thinking before he acts are weaknesses.

What is causing Marcus to dislike puzzles? The first step was to watch him complete a simple puzzle.  I selected ones I thought he might be able to complete. I was looking at his abilities in several areas.

Attention to detail – Kids who are impulsive may not notice details.

Marcus is impulsive. As he worked a simple twelve piece puzzle, I noticed he did not pay attention to the picture. His strategy was shove until it fits. To help Marcus pay more attention to details, I encouraged dad to review the picture of the puzzle with Marcus prior to taking the puzzle apart.  I encouraged him to talk about the puzzle as they put it together. Ask Marcus what was on the piece in his hand. Draw his attention to colors. Draw his attention to major shape qualities i.e. that piece is too big for that spot.

Figure Ground – This is the ability to find a certain piece in the pile of puzzle pieces.

I presented Marcus with a 12 piece puzzle with very clear objects and an uncluttered background. I asked him to find two pieces, each with a red ball on it. He quickly scanned the pile and came up with the needed pieces. I cued dad to allow Marcus to help him with new puzzles by asking him to hand him certain pieces. This would allow Marcus to continue to develop this skills

Visual Closure – This is the ability to see what part of a picture is on the puzzle piece. I.e. these five pieces make up the butterfly.

I presented Marcus with a 24 piece puzzle. After reviewing the picture; I removed pieces from two distinct sections; nine total pieces. One section was a dog and the other was a barn. Marcus could not sort the 9 pieces into barn pieces vs dog pieces. He lacked the ability to look at the dog’s leg and realize it was part of the dog. This was a missing skill. I cues dad to move back to four and six piece puzzles that make simple single objects.  Marcus needs to practice visual closure at a simple level before moving on to twelve and twenty-four piece puzzles.

Motor Planning – Knowing where to start

When given a six or eight piece puzzle, Marcus was able to find a starting point. After Marcus removed all the pieces and placed them on the side, he immediately put the last piece taken out back into the puzzle. I cued Marcus’s dad to let him remove the puzzle pieces and put them back without sorting or moving them around. This would allow Marcus to continue to backward chain when completing more complex puzzles.

Problem SolvingThe ability to figure out that this piece does not fit and then use a strategy to continue. Common strategies include: Rotating the piece, trying it in different location, placing it aside and getting a new piece.

Marcus had limited problem solving. He continued to push and manipulate a single piece into the wrong location. He would attempt to rotate and flip; however the movement was random and did not appear to be a result of Marcus making decisions. I cued Marcus’s dad to prompt Marcus to look at the puzzle prior to placing it. An additional strategy is to ask Marcus to find the piece that goes in a specific area.

Spatial Skills – The ability to match the shape of the puzzle to the shape needed.

Marcus did not assess the shape of the slot before selecting a piece to fit. He would attempt to place a very large puzzle piece in a very small slot. When doing an interlocking puzzle, Marcus did not use the shape of the puzzle as a clue. To address this skill, I draw the child’s attention to the bubble or the round arm of the interlocking puzzle and cue them to place the bubble in a bubble hole. A second strategy is to trace around a single interlocking piece – I use a blank sheet of typing paper. I trace a middle piece, a corner and an edge piece. Can the child match the shape to the shape outlined on the paper?

Memory/Recall – The ability to recall how to do a puzzle once you have completed it several times.

Marcus has an excellent memory. He is able to complete familiar, interlocking puzzles at home. Marcus uses his excellent memory to recall the past strategies that were successful for him. In other words, Marcus completes the puzzles at home from memory. New puzzles require Marcus to work on the underlying perceptual skills. As several of these skills are weak, Marcus’s perceives puzzles as hard. He has no confidence and thus avoids the task.


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