How to Pick Your Baby's First Puzzle
Not all toys are created equal. Some of them are trendy and feature cartoon characters kids adore. Others are battery-operated and can move, play music, and shine pretty lights. On the other side of that spectrum is the good 'ol stick that can bring hours of fun to an outdoorsy kid. Right in the middle are well-designed Montessori toys.
And puzzles? Puzzles are there to boost your child's brainpower. These toys can range from one-piece puzzles to wonderful and elaborate jigsaw puzzles.
A group of scientists from the University of Chicago studied how early puzzle play can influence the development of spatial transformation skills. They found a direct correlation between the frequency of regular play with puzzles and the successful completion of spatial transformation tasks—kids who played with puzzles improved at spatial transformation in their preschool period.
This case study involved children from 2-4 years until they became pre-schoolers. Your little one is not a pre-schooler yet, right? Does that mean that you need to wait to introduce puzzles into their selection of toys?
When Should My Baby Start Doing Puzzles?
So, can babies do puzzles? The short answer is - yes. Babies can do puzzles when they reach around 10 months of age. The long answer is - it depends on the baby and it depends on the puzzle.
You don't want to hand huge jigsaw puzzles to infants or toddlers even. All those small puzzle pieces would be too dangerous for them. Not to mention that the puzzle itself would be very dull for such young kids.
However, babies can use one-piece puzzles of appropriate shapes and sizes to boost their motor skills. Baby's first puzzle must be educational and fun - the sweet spot that most Montessori toys hit. So, making your baby's first puzzle a Montessori one is a good idea.
What Is a Montessori Puzzle?
Montessori puzzles, just like all other Montessori-aligned toys, have the same principles they are based on:
1. It needs to be complex enough to be engaging but not too complicated, so it's frustrating for your baby.
2. It must be based on reality. No fantasy world, cartoon characters, and similar imagery. Animals are always a good choice.
3. They should make error control easy. If a puzzle has one or just a few pieces, it is fairly easy to predict if they will fit into the correct places.
4. They should be functional. Simple puzzles will promote your baby's fine motor skills. That's definitely something to look for in your baby's first puzzle.
5. Desirable, but not necessary - your baby's first puzzle can be made of natural materials.
A Montessori puzzle for a 1-year-old can sometimes be just the perfect toy for a baby that hasn't turned 12 months yet - if they find it interesting and have advanced problem-solving skills that allow them to enjoy it.
How to Choose Baby and Toddler Puzzles
As a general rule of thumb, make sure you consider these essential factors when choosing that first puzzle.
Babies Need Nobs on Puzzles: Your first step when choosing the baby's first puzzle is to ensure they come with nobs that babies can hold. These are usually nobs made of wood. Tiny babies will need these to be a bit bigger as they grow and their dexterity improves; they can tackle smaller puzzle nobs.
Age Recommendation: Baby puzzles or toddler puzzles come with an age recommendation from the manufacturer stated on the box. However, that's all they are - recommendations. Some toddlers can already play with complex jigsaw puzzles, while others don't seem to be that interested in anything more than simple two-piece puzzles. That's all fine as long as their puzzle inspires them to think without causing frustration.
Size of the Puzzle Pieces: Baby's first puzzle should have big pieces that they can't easily swallow. Everyone knows those pieces go straight to their mouth before they even try to work out the puzzle. They will taste it before putting it together, so ensure they can't hurt themselves during that process.
Complexity: Start with the more straightforward puzzles and work your way from there. At what pace? Whatever seems appropriate and comfortable for your child. Kids learn at their own pace, and this is not a competition. Start with a simple puzzle with just a few different shapes that don't have to fit together. The next step would be more complex shapes than just rectangles, circles, and triangles. The step after that can be shapes that connect to each other rather than designated fitting holes.
Enjoy watching your kid improve with practice, and look forward to the day when you sit together and bond over those huge jigsaw puzzles.
What Do Puzzles Teach Infants?
Infants still don't understand that their puzzle features a cute owl or a lovely boat. Does that mean that these are wasted on babies? No. Not by far. Baby's first puzzle needs to be fun and engaging, and they will grow to appreciate the aesthetics of it later. Initially, this first puzzle needs to become an engaging, educative toy that helps grow their skills, muscles, and hand-eye coordination.
Here are some things that your baby's first puzzle teaches them:
Baby sees a puzzle piece - baby wants the puzzle piece. While babies are still very small, this simple act of grabbing what they want with their fingers is a huge deal. Their brain still doesn't fully understand how those cute little hands work, and it's trying to figure it out. An interesting baby's first puzzle will motivate the infant to repeat that action over and over again until they completely master it.
Grasping and Pinching
This is where things get even more complicated. Ordering your hand to go after a colorful puzzle piece is one thing - but actually getting those adorable fingers to perform the delicate action of pinching, twisting, or grabbing is quite a tall order for an infant. That's where those puzzle nobs come into play. They make this action possible and less frustrating.
Hand Muscle Control
Muscles are what make those grabbing and grasping movements possible. Controlling them is not that easy when your hands are brand new. Every time baby's first puzzle gets them to grab that piece, try to push it into the designated place, or even just twist it, turn it, and explore it - hand muscles are being strengthened, baby's brain understands better how they work and what they can do. All very exciting discoveries.
This skill comes a bit later when the child is a few months older. Understanding how much space there is between the two objects or how two objects fit with each other is rocket science in a baby's world. Baby's first puzzle is just the thing to start that learning journey. When you think about it, it's their primary purpose.
There's a long way to go from your baby's first puzzle to jigsaw puzzles. However, that is one incredible learning journey. Make the beginning of that journey truly incredible, and make your baby's first puzzle a Montessori puzzle.
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