How to Teach Kids to Put Together a Puzzle

How to Teach Young Children To Put Together a Puzzle

Do your students come to Pre-K or Kindergarten already knowing how to put together a basic puzzle?  Many of my students need help mastering this problem solving skill.  I don’t know why, but it always surprises me each year when children need lessons on how to put together a puzzle.  I just assume that their parents have taught them this at home, but there are always a BUNCH of them that really have no idea!  I’m sure that many children don’t have these ordinary puzzles at home.  Perhaps some children have a few puzzles, but their parents never taught them how to best use them, or maybe it’s both?  And it could also be that their parents tried to teach them, and the children either didn’t understand it or weren’t developmentally ready to really learn and remember it.

The “Digital Native” gets acquainted with this thing his teachers call “a puzzle.”

And maybe we have all gone “so digital” that children seem to instinctively know how to play hand held computer games (such as on an iPad), but ordinary old puzzles?  ‘Fraid not!  I guess that’s a digital native for you, isn’t it?  NONE of my students had ANY trouble using the iPads last year!  And it’s interesting to note that most of them say that their parents don’t have one at home for them to play with either!


Teaching Children to Put Together a Puzzle
So, I had to back up and teach them how to put together a basic puzzle, step by step.  These were the steps that I came up with.  If you have come across a better way, please let me know!

First of all, let me state that I not ALL of our puzzles have numbers on the backs of them as the one in the picture does.  We only did that for the most difficult ones that the children consistently could not put together on their own, because they were leaving them unfinished for the teacher to complete at the end of the day.  Since this is not my idea of the best way to spend my prep work, I went ahead and put the number clues on the backs of the pieces for a few of the hardest ones.

Now for parents at home or for teachers of very young children that would like to put the more difficult puzzles together, adding the numbers is a great way to put some “training wheels” on the puzzle!  Plus, it can also help give the children some practice in recognizing those numerals.  So, think of it as a baby step on the way to putting a puzzle together on your own.  I wouldn’t do it for every puzzle, but I would do it for some of the trickier ones that seem to always be a problem for many of the children in a classroom.

Step 1:
Have your kids take a careful look at the completed puzzle before dumping it out.  Once it’s dumped out, you can’t go back!  Is there any certain part of the picture or piece that you will want to start with?
(In my class, we also have a rule that you can only dump out ONE puzzle at a time.  You must put it back together and put it away before getting a new one.  No one is allowed to give up on a puzzle, walk away from it, and dump out a new one!)


Step 2:
Then dump the puzzle out and take the puzzle apart, turning the pieces over to the printed side.  If there is any print on them, turn the print right side up.


Step 3:
Teach kids to first look for corner pieces and any obvious matches, such as the piece I marked with a number one below.  Corners usually have straight edges so they are easier to spot.
Piece number 2 below has an edge, and then piece number three is pretty obvious because of the face.


Step 4: 
Look for pieces with long straight sides that might belong on the outside edges and put them in next.  The piece below was also a corner type of piece and was easy to find, even without the numbering.


Step 5: 
Match the rest of the bottom, corner, and outside edges.  (At least, it’s usually easiest to fill in all of the corners and outside edges first, and this puzzle is no exception.)  The bottom pieces were the  easiest thing to match up next on this puzzle, especially considering the picture clue of the feet.


Step 6: 
Put in the last pieces, using the pictures to help you.  If your child is missing a piece, have them stand up!  The kids are almost ALWAYS sitting on it!


In fact, my 22 year old daughter and a friend recently put together a 500 piece puzzle in our living room, and were missing the last piece.  I advised them to stand up, because I was SURE that one of them was sitting on it, since kindergartners are always found to be sitting on missing puzzle pieces.  Guess what?  Her friend WAS sitting on it!  We all laughed our heads off- particularly since they had both been searching the puzzle area for about five minutes! 🙂

P.S. Check this out! My Number Jumble DVD now has numbers all the way to 30!! 😀



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Heidi Butkus

About Heidi Butkus

Heidi Butkus has been teaching in California public schools since 1985. She has somehow managed to stay in Kindergarten all of those years, with the exception of five years in first grade, and also taught a parent participation preschool for a short while! Combining a strong knowledge of brain research with practical experience, Heidi has created a wealth of fun and engaging teaching techniques that work well with diverse populations. She has presented at conferences nationwide, and is the owner and founder of Heidi has also created fourteen original CD's and DVD's for teaching beginning reading and math skills, three musical plays designed especially for young performers, and has written some picture books and many other teaching resources. Heidi's multimedia workshops are filled with fun and motivational educational activities that have been classroom tested and revised for effectiveness with all types of learners.
  1. Heidi something I used to do was to get a 100 piece puzzle and every day add one more piece working up to the 100th day of school. It helps the kids to watch you do it, that plus lots of opportunities to put puzzles together!

  2. You are right, it is a taught skill. My 3 1/2 year old can put together 48 piece puzzles ALONE. I taught her early on "how to" (including persistence and patience) and at 2 she was mastering the 10-12 piece cut out puzzles (like you have pictured). It requires so make different thinking / problem solving skills to put together a puzzles that is is well worth the time to teach it – at home – before school. These skills then transfer to real world situations. BONUS: Keeps her busy for a while and puzzles are so darn cheap.

  3. To Kim,
    WOW! Your child must be an amazing three and a half year old, and you must be an amazing mom! Sign that child up for my class!!! 🙂
    You should tell us how you got her past the smaller puzzles and into the larger, harder ones!

  4. Heidi
    Do you suggest outlining and numbering pieces on many of you hard board puzzles as you did in this sample. I think the numbering and outlining might take away the chance for kids to practice those strategies just taught. I have done this on just a few of my beginning puzzles. I really like you suggestion of instructing this skill because through the years interest in puzzles has really dropped. This year my kindergarteners did not complete even one 100 piece puzzle! And they were really not ready to attempt one on our 100th day, the one day they may have considered taking on the challenge.
    Thank you for all the information and products you so freely share. I have been a follower of your's for many, many years and have purchased and enjoyed many of your products, as well as referred new teachers I've mentored to your site. Thanks for your continuing insights and contributions!

  5. Hi, Bobbi!
    How nice to have a comment from someone that has been a "supporter" and follower for such a long time!

    Your question is a great one. The truth is that I wound up doing that for a few puzzles in my room that the children would get stuck on consistently, and then were unable to put away when asked to do so. It was a matter of classroom management in a room that had (at the time) up to 34 children in it, and no aide! So out of desperation, I had to make certain puzzles easier for the children, or I would have to put them together myself later after school or at recess. It was either that or simply put them in a cupboard or out of reach!

    However, once we got class size reduction in place, it never occurred to me to draw those lines around the puzzles or add numbers, because there were fewer children that needed help with such things and by then we were given instructional aides (thank GOD!).

    And, last of all, the only puzzles I had access to in the summer time to take pictures of were the ones that were my personal property, and they all had lines and numbers drawn all over them. I would have chosen "clean" puzzles to take pictures of, if I had them available! LOL!

  6. I love to spend my free time putting together jigsaw puzzles. Basically life is a 30,000 piece puzzle where we take it one day at a time! I am not too good at puzzles more than 200 pieces though.

  7. Just wanted to say Puzzles are an awesome learning tool. I have a grandson that’s 3 1/2 and is putting together 100 piece puzzles by himself after he’s had help twice:) I love watching his brain work! It’s amazing

  8. Hi Heidi,
    I taught my daughter how to figure out puzzles when she was 2 1/2 and since she’s always been very independent she rarely allowed me to assist her. by age 3, she was able to do a 24 piece puzzle by herself. 3 1/2 she’s able to do 48 piece puzzles by herself, it’s wonderful just watching as she figures what piece goes where. one rule I have for her with anything she does is to not give up. So she has to complete a puzzle before doing another.


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