A recent article about the world’s largest puzzle being used in therapy with adults has caused me to reflect upon how I use puzzles with young children.
When I work with two– and three-year-old children, I start with three- to nine-piece puzzles, depending on the fine motor and cognitive abilities of each child. I will ask the child to choose which piece he or she wants, eliciting either pointing or labeling (e.g., “Do you want the cow or the horse?”). With children who are producing many one-word utterances, I will up the ante by offering two-word choices (e.g., “Do you want the black cat or the orange cat?” “Do you want the boy’s head or the boy’s feet?”). I encourage parents to do the same, as opposed to just giving children the pieces and letting them do the puzzles by themselves. Letting children complete puzzles by themselves is a good cognitive and fine motor activity and may give parents a much needed break, but it will not elicit spoken language unless the child is involved in self-talk.
Puzzles can also be used as a springboard for furthering language development beyond labeling choices. I use puzzles to model and elicit simple comments and rudimentary conversation. When offering children pieces of farm animals, for example, I will ask them what the animals say or do. I will then respond to the child’s response, validating and expanding it. For example, if I offer a child a choice between the ducks and the bunny and the child chooses the ducks, I may then ask, “What are the ducks doing?” If the child answers, “swimming,” I might respond, “Yes, the ducks are swimming. The ducks are swimming in the water.“ I may follow with “What do the ducks say?” Puzzles can thus be used as a shared activity to facilitate language in very young children.