How to Choose the Perfect Puzzle for a Kid

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Perusing through puzzles online, you’re overwhelmed by the hundreds of options.

Should you choose an 18-piece puzzle? Or is 26 pieces better? What about the topic? Will a puzzle of the planets be appropriate?

As with any purchase, it can be difficult to choose the perfect puzzle. You know that if you select the wrong one, your child might not enjoy this educational toy. Or worse, they might hate the experience and refuse to try doing a puzzle again in the future.

Imagine presenting a 2-year-old with a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle. The toddler wouldn’t know what to do. That’s because most little ones this age don’t have the concentration, fine motor, or cognitive skills to be able to complete such a challenging puzzle.

The key to choosing an appropriate puzzle for a child at any age is finding the right difficulty level. In addition, the kid’s interests and safety concerns come into play. But, how can you go about this?

Below are some factors to consider that will significantly narrow down your search so that you can find the right puzzle for your youngster.

1. Puzzle Type

Despite there being an abundance of puzzle types, they all boil down to two main categories; inset and jigsaw puzzles.

Inset puzzles are typically made of wood and sometimes foam. They consist of large, bulky pieces that don’t interlock in the way that jigsaw puzzles do. In addition, all inset puzzles come with a tray or frame on which the pieces fit. Knob and peg puzzles are the most popular examples in this category, though there are also chunky puzzles which have no knobs.

These simple learning toys are particularly useful as the first puzzles for the youngest of children.

Unlike the inset type, jigsaw puzzles feature interlocking pieces and come in a wide variety of sizes and difficulty levels. The primary forms of jigsaws include frame and floor puzzles, in addition to 3D ones.

Jigsaw puzzles are typically reserved for children beyond the toddler years because they are generally more difficult than the inset category.

2. Number of Pieces

Envision a 6-year-old completing a 12-piece frame puzzle. They’d have it completed in less than one minute. On the other hand, a 400-piece puzzle is probably beyond their abilities.

This illustrates just how relevant the number of pieces in a puzzle is to meeting the skills of the child. The quantity of pieces is one of the most crucial factors when picking the right puzzles for little ones.

Younger kids typically need puzzles with fewer pieces which are easier to assemble. As they grow, they can handle greater complexity in the form of more pieces.

3. Topic

Puppies, an ocean scene, a beautiful landscape, cartoon characters, are just a few of the possible themes you might see on a puzzle. While one kid might love a puzzle with a prominent unicorn, another child might hate it.

Now, the ideal topic to choose largely depends on the kid’s age which will influence their personal interests.

Just picture the average preschooler presented with the choice of a dinosaur themed or solar system puzzle. Which one would they pick? The dinosaur one would probably win hands-down, despite other characteristics the puzzle may have. On the other hand, 7-year-olds might prefer more sophisticated topics like works of art, buildings, or seascapes.

The right puzzle image can be a big motivator for children when assembling the pieces. In fact, it can even inspire your child to work on a puzzle that’s a bit beyond their normal difficulty level.

4. Size of Pieces

Puzzle pieces come in a wide range of sizes. As a general rule, the younger the child, the bigger the pieces you should seek.

Larger, thicker pieces are easier for little hands to manipulate and put together, which is typically the case with foam puzzles.

By the way, you might have seen many puzzles that has a warning label for possible choking of kids under three years old. The reason for specifying that age restriction is mainly the small pieces can cause choking in toddlers and babies who typically like putting stuff in their mouths.

5. Material

Wood, cardboard, and foam are the main materials used to make puzzles.

Cardboard warps and tears easily especially when it’s not high quality, making it frustrating for little kids to work with because the pieces don’t stay together well.

Foam pieces can be easier to interlock and stay in place compared to cardboard, though they’re typically not recommended for toddlers due to the possible choking hazard from small parts.

As previously mentioned, wooden puzzles are usually either inset puzzles or frame puzzles and are ideal for younger kids. But, as a general rule, wooden toys should be inspected before being given to children as they can be dangerous if the edges haven’t been properly sanded.

6. Image Type

From photos to drawings, cartoons, and more, the image on a puzzle plays a big role in its appeal and difficulty level.

For instance, photos that include a lot of foliage can make for very hard puzzles because many of the pieces appear to be identical. However, a jigsaw puzzle featuring a graphic image with brightly colored animals is much easier to put together.

The amount of contrast in the colors and image are key areas to consider. The more contrast, the easier the puzzle will be. Specifically, pictures with lots of different, vivid colors can make the puzzle more accessible for young children. This way, the child can strategize by finding all of the pieces of a similar color to put them together.

7. Puzzle Shape

Most jigsaw puzzles are rectangular shaped and feature classic interlocking pieces. However, some of them may come in unique shapes related to the topic of the puzzle or consist of irregularly shaped pieces.

You might have come across a puzzle with a butterfly or t-rex outline. There are US map puzzles that feature pieces in the shape of the individual states.

Unless the pieces will go inside a frame (i.e. frame puzzle), the traditional puzzle shape and consistent pieces tend to be best for little ones who are new to jigsaws. The square or rectangle outline provides straight edges and predictability whereas irregular shapes aren’t as easy to anticipate.

For older children, a non-rectangular floor puzzle and variation in piece shapes can add interest to the puzzle plus make it more challenging and fun to assemble.

Puzzles by Age

Now that you know the factors to consider when choosing a kid’s puzzle, let’s put everything together to understand the specific needs of different age groups:

Puzzles for Babies (0-1 Years Old)

Babies can start playing with very simple puzzles at around 6 months of age or when they can sit up on their own.

The best puzzles for the youngest of children are inset style puzzles with very few pieces. Ideally, a puzzle for a baby is large, chunky, and features about 3 pieces. Knob puzzles are the most appropriate options out there for kids at this age.

Popular topics for baby puzzles include animals, geometric shapes, and transportation.

Babies love high contrast images as their eyesight continues to develop. Black and white stripes, or bright, primary colors are great.

Wood are the best choices in material for the youngest children because just about anything babies pick up goes straight into their mouth. 

For this reason, choose puzzle pieces large enough that they won’t put your little one at risk of choking. Also, look out for puzzles with paper pictures or stickers glued onto the pieces, as these can be a choking hazard if removed by the baby. 

Puzzles for Toddlers (1-3 Years Old)

Slowly, over time, babies can graduate from chunky, knob inset puzzles to jigsaw puzzles. Around the age of 2, kids who have some experience with puzzles can begin working with 5-16 piece puzzles featuring large pieces. The image should be simple, but bright and clear. High contrast is also preferred.

You can pick a puzzle made from wood or cardboard for this age-group. Foam might not be appropriate for toddlers who do tend to put things in their mouths and can bite off the pieces.

Depending on your child’s development, try to choose a puzzle with larger pieces to minimize the chance of choking due to small parts.

Topics such as animals or habitats like jungles, oceans, mountains, or deserts are excellent options for toddlers. Other subjects like trucks, boats, or airplanes are also well-loved.

During this age span, peg puzzles are a good choice. Smaller than knobs, pegs require children to practice the pincer grip which is an essential skill for good handwriting and coloring.

Puzzles for Preschoolers (3-5 Years Old)

By the age of 3, children can manage even more of a challenge including a 24-piece floor puzzle. Older preschoolers (~ 4 years old) enjoy puzzles with up to about 48 pieces that are of moderate size. Interesting piece shapes are also fun for kids in this group.

At this stage, high-contrast images with lots of bright colors and clearly outlined figures are still ideal. Both floor and frame jigsaw puzzles are great for preschoolers.

You can pick any puzzle material for preschoolers (cardboard, foam, or wood) as long as it’s sturdy especially the cardboard. Although 3-year-olds can be taught to use the puzzle with care, they may still treat it a bit roughly.

Kids at this age really seem to enjoy rectangular floor puzzles and working on the ground. The pieces are also large and easy to manipulate. The size of the puzzle is very impressive for children, giving them a true feeling of accomplishment once they’ve finished it.

As far as topics, preschoolers almost always love animal-themed puzzles. Some other good subjects include trucks and transportation, cartoons, mythical creatures such as dragons and unicorns, dinosaurs, and outer space.

Puzzles for Early Elementary Students (5-8 Years Old)

Early elementary school students can take on up to about 180-piece puzzles with fairly small piece size, after having gained experience with 80-120 piece puzzles.

Young ones in early elementary school are also more adept at discerning the shapes of pieces. This means images that include areas with lower contrast, such as expanses of grass, sky, or water, provide an appropriate difficulty level for these kids.

Offer children at this age a collection of floor puzzles. Some popular subjects for early elementary students include outer space, dinosaurs, animals and their habitats, the ocean, cartoon characters, and more. Irregularly shaped puzzles can add excitement and challenge for children in this age group.

It’s also especially important to provide early elementary schoolers a greater variety of puzzles. While younger children may be content to do the same puzzles over and over again, 5 to 8 year-olds crave variation. So, rotate jigsaw puzzles regularly or find a friend with whom you can trade puzzles occasionally.

Puzzles for Late Elementary Students (8-11 Years Old)

At this point, kids typically start to lose interest in jigsaw puzzles. But, you can keep their motivation up by providing novel puzzles that offer just the right amount of challenge.

200 pieces is a good start for late elementary students. Images can include fascinating works of art, landscapes, and intricate designs. In addition to choosing topics that reflect the child’s interests, offer your older kids a diverse array of difficult puzzles.

Try to boost motivation with exciting features such as glow-in-the-dark paint, or even hidden pictures that children must find after completion, in an “I Spy” format.

Irregularly shaped puzzles especially 3-D ones are particularly great for older elementary schoolers because they offer a new level of difficulty and interest. These puzzles might be replicas of buildings, vehicles, or planet earth.

The Process for Choosing a Perfect Puzzle

The next time you pick up a puzzle, consider your child’s abilities and interests.

Don’t forget to contemplate details like the material, number and size of pieces, and puzzle type to choose the most appropriate option for your little one. The image style is also particularly relevant, as low-contrast photos and drawings can quickly become frustrating for inexperienced or young puzzlers.

By taking these factors into account, you’ll have an easier time selecting the ideal puzzle for your kid. Then, you’ll enjoy watching them fully engage with this educational toy. It will help them learn many essential life skills such as problem solving and concentration.

One carefully chosen puzzle can afford your little one hours of fun and learning.

Below is a summary guide to make the process of picking the right puzzle less complicated for you. Please note the suggested number of pieces after the age of 8, will generally increase by around 100 pieces for each year e.g. 300 pieces for a 9-year-old child.

By the way, we have created a calculator for appropriate puzzle size. This online tool will help you to effortlessly know the right child age (or number of pieces) for a puzzle. Be sure to check it out.

Table Listing the Appropriate Puzzle Type and Number of Pieces for Each Child Age

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