Children learn through play. As an occupational therapist who works with children and youth, I use games and toys almost every day to help develop important cognitive, visual perceptual, motor, sensory, social, play and leisure skills. While many different types of activities can be used in therapy, this blog focuses on off-the-shelf games and toys that are accessible to most. Whether you are a therapist, parent, teacher, or a game lover like me, I hope you discover something useful while you are here. Learn a different way to play a game you already own or discover a new game for your next family game night. Either way, just go play. It's good for you!

The OT Magazine named The Playful Otter one of the Top 5 Pediatric OT Blogs.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Tips for Assembling Jigsaw Puzzles

Tips for teaching kids to assemble jigsaw puzzles.

Work on spatial relations, visual closure, visual discrimination, visual form constancy, figure ground, visual scanning, executive functioning skills, manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, in-hand manipulation, process skills, leisure and play exploration and participation

Jigsaw puzzles are a favorite of many OTs for the number of skills that can be addressed during assembly. Over the years I have had the opportunity to use many different brands, and there are lots of them out there, and have settled on one all around favorite - Ravensburger. This brand has all the qualities that I look for in a puzzle and they have stood the test of time and frequent use. Ravensburger puzzles are durable and the pieces are just a tad thicker than your everyday puzzle. Because of this, pieces will not bend or break easily, they feel good in the hand, and if there are issues with hand skills or a slight tremor, the thicker pieces will "catch" easier than flatter puzzle pieces that require a little more control. In addition, Ravensburger puzzle images are whimsical and colorful, the puzzles come in many piece and size configurations, and even the boxes are well constructed and durable.

It is always my goal to set my kids up for success, and to me that means knowing the different features of a puzzle and how they match each individual's strengths and weaknesses. Things I consider when deciding which puzzle to use for an individual are the number of pieces, the difficulty of the image on the puzzle, the shape of the puzzle and how the pieces fit together. The first three attributes are pretty easy to see just by looking at the box lid, but the last is unknown with a new puzzle brand until you open the box and start to assemble. Some puzzle pieces are very thin and hard to pick up off the table top, others fit loosely and you find yourself putting the same pieces in place over and over, others are too thick and can be a challenge to lock into place, others are loaded with odd shapes, and I totally avoid lenticular puzzles because they are often warped and don't lie completely flat. I have found Ravensburger puzzles to be consistent and you always know what you are getting so you don't waste your money on something that you will never use. Or worse yet, set your child up for failure.

When working with puzzles, watch how the individual attempts to assemble the puzzle. Is he trying to put edge pieces in the center? Is he trying to fit tabs onto tabs and blanks onto blanks? Is he trying to fit like patterns or images together, or just randomly trying to fit pieces? Many of these failed attempts, that may lead to frustration, could be avoided altogether if they understood a few facts about puzzles. Here are some things that I do that I have found helpful:
  • Doesn't see edge pieces - There are several things I do in this case. First, I dump the puzzle pieces onto the table top, pick up an edge piece and show it to the individual. I talk about the straight side as opposed to the tabs and blanks, I run my finger down the edge and have him do so too. Then I have him sort the pieces into two piles - edge pieces and inside pieces. I don't move forward until he sees the edges and sorts them correctly. Then we build the frame, stopping frequently so that he can run his finger across the top, down the side, or across the bottom to feel the straight edge. Or instead of assembling the entire frame, work on one edge and build from there. For instance, suggest finding all of the pieces with a straight edge and grass because you know they will go on the bottom edge. Or all the pieces with sky and clouds because you know they will go on the top edge.
  • Doesn't match patterns - If it seems that the person is just picking up pieces and randomly trying them here and there I start with one of the big 24 piece floor puzzles. Is he just working impulsively, or does he need to be taught to look for pieces with the same patterns and colors? By using one of the giant puzzles you can very easily see the patterns. I usually start by picking out one large item from the picture, like a zebra, and pick up the pieces one at a time and ask "Are there any zebra stripes on this piece". After you have found all the zebra pieces, then assemble the zebra by looking carefully at the images on the pieces and matching them to like images, such as legs to legs, facial features to the head, etc. Then choose another object from the puzzle with a pattern or particular color and repeat the process. Or spread all the pieces on the table and point to an obvious item on the picture, such as the zebra, and ask the individual to find a piece of that image. The pieces are so big and the patterns are so obvious that I have had older kids tell me "Now I get it!" 
  • Doesn't match tabs and blanks - Examine one piece and explain puzzle terminology - tabs and blanks. Pick up a connecting piece and show how a tab on top of a tab will not work, as well as a blank on top of a blank, but how the tab and blank fit together. Seems too simple, but sometimes they just need to be shown. Lots of times kids will pick up piece after piece and try them incorrectly and get frustrated quickly when nothing fits. They are wasting time and getting frustrated over something that is not even possible.
  • Doesn't refer to the picture on the box - Sometimes kids will randomly pick up a piece and try to fit it on the left side of the puzzle when looking at the box would clearly show that piece goes on the right side of the puzzle. If I have someone who doesn't/won't refer to the picture on the box while assembling a puzzle, we play a game with the pieces before starting. I hand the individual one piece at a time, with an obvious object or pattern on it, and ask him to find it on the box and show me where it would go. Or after the puzzle is well under way, pick up individual pieces, that you can see will fit into the puzzle, and ask the individual to refer to the picture on the box for placement and then place it. Once they have understood and are using the box it may be a good chance to practice left/right and top/middle/bottom.
  • Doesn't check to see if a piece is right side up before attempting to place it - Of course not all images on pieces have an obvious top and bottom, but many do. Sometimes kids just need to be taught to stop and look at the piece. One by one, show the individual pieces that do have an obvious top and bottom and ask them to orient the piece upright. Put the pieces in different orientations so that the individual must look carefully at each piece. When an individual starts trying pieces in a puzzle at all different orientations, and the piece has an obvious top and bottom, stop him and ask him if the piece is upright and explain there is no point in trying it different ways as it will only work in the upright orientation.
When working on puzzles, I will also pull out my puzzle apps from time to time. Most kids love working on a tablet, and even though you are not feeling and turning pieces in-hand, you can stress edge pieces and matching patterns. Here are the apps that I like the best for beginners. Fun at the Farm Puzzle App and Cars Puzzle App .

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