Jigsaw Puzzles With Toddlers

If you’ve ever done a jigsaw puzzle with a two year old, you know what it means to run through the entire range of human emotions. You hope, you cringe, you pull your hair out. At some point, you’ll be disgusted, elated and then relieved. It’s a worthy exercise, and its success depends on your ability to take a step back and let him struggle a little. The same can probably be said about most aspects of being a parent.

Puzzles for two-year-olds only have like 13 pieces. They come in a shiny box with a picture of a smiling pirate who’s just unearthed his treasure. You lay those pieces out for the child and stand back and wait for his wheels to turn, his mind to bloom, and the next generation of great thinkers to be born. The first stage of doing a puzzle with a toddler is self-satisfaction.

But for whatever reason, he’s just not getting it. Maybe the puzzle’s too hard? You check the box again and there it is, “18 months and up.” You quickly jump from fear to anger. Those manufacturers don’t know what they’re talking about. Next comes self-doubt. Maybe you should have gotten the five-piece puzzle? Maybe you’ve misjudged the last two years of his development. He had the pincer grip down pat at 9 months and crawled forwards instead of backwards. You just figured he could handle the pirate.

All the books said this was a good idea. You need to set them up for experiences where they have to think and personally experience their minds. You can feed them, you can sing to them, but in the end everyone has to personally experience his own mind. Try and fail. Try and fail. It’s the background music along the road to success.

So you’ve got to make this work. You help just a little by putting the two pieces together that form the pirate’s pant legs. From there everything is pretty obvious. The shoes are going to go under the pants, the blousy shirt goes above. The piece above the shirt has a parrot resting on the shoulder. Everyone knows the parrot sits on the pirate’s shoulder. Surely this kid will catch on.

He picks up the shirt piece and puts it in his mouth. He puts it down. He picks up a straight edged outside piece and tries to line it up over those pants, right smack dab in the middle of the puzzle. You snap, just a little, and grab that piece out of his hand. “It’s an outside piece!” you say, a little too loudly. You don’t understand why he’s looking at you like that.

He picks up the pirate’s shirt again and puts it right above the pants and right below the parrot. He pauses. Your pulse quickens. He turns it upside down. You choke back a scream. An upside down pirate’s shirt is never going to click in over those pants. You can even see the little parrot’s feet where the shoulders are supposed to be. How can he not be getting this?

When I had little kids, this is when I had to shove my hands so deeply into my pockets that I ripped the seams. If it was a corner piece that he was putting in the middle of the puzzle, I’d have to physically leave the room. This crucial process of brain development often outlasted my willpower. I wanted to grab that stupid shirt, turn it around and feel the glorious click as I pressed it into place. I wanted him to see the whole picture.

And there’s the thing. You can’t make someone see. You can’t force a process. Life is experiential, so you have to let them lick that puzzle piece a few times and press it hard into the wrong spot. By the time my little kids finished one of these puzzles, my nerves were slightly wrecked, but not so wrecked that I couldn’t see the satisfaction on their faces. There’s nothing quite like putting the pieces together yourself.