Jigsaw Puzzles are Math? » Little Learning Lovies

Jigsaw Puzzles are Math?

You bet!  Jigsaw puzzles count as math!  I know.  They’re not arithmetic.  They’re not counting or number sense.  They’re not even geometry!  But I can’t think of a single better tool for developing a child’s higher order problem solving skills than a jigsaw puzzle.


Why Jigsaw Puzzles Count as Math

You can probably imagine that some of the most important skills your child will learn by doing jigsaw puzzles are patience and fortitude.  It takes a great deal of those to see a puzzle through to the end!  But beyond those character traits, a jigsaw puzzle will teach your child

  • spatial sense
  • categorizing and classifying
  • problem solving strategies and
  • logical reasoning.

Spatial Sense

Spatial sense is the ability to see how things fit together in space.  If you’ve ever tried to pack your dishwasher so you only have to run it once, or get all of those Christmas presents into one box for shipping, or decide if your Suburban really will fit in that parking space, then you’ll appreciate how necessary spatial sense is.

Jigsaw puzzles are nothing if not a mini-lab in spatial sense.  Each piece has unique shape properties that make it appropriate for only one space. Identifying the features that make one piece right and all the others wrong takes practice and builds your child’s spatial sense.  Before long, she’ll be plucking the right piece from a whole pile of pieces with just a little bit of thought.

Classifying and Categorizing

Classifying and categorizing are the processes of grouping things together based on one or more similar characteristics.  Puzzle pieces aren’t just shapes with no other traits, so your child will learn how to classify and categorize pieces for easier identification.  Most frequently she’ll classify by type — edge piece or inside piece; by color; or by image feature — e.g. animal, building, water, sky.  By classifying and categorizing the pieces, she’s making it easier to figure out which ones might go together.


Tough problems usually require several different strategies to solve.  At first, your child will probably try to find the correct pieces using the brute force method of problem solving.  In this method, you try every piece in the spot until you find the right one.  Then you move on to the next spot and start all over again, testing each individual piece.  As you can imagine, this process is time consuming and inefficient.

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By eliminating pieces that don’t match on color, type or image feature, the number of possible pieces can be greatly reduced.  By then homing in on shape features of the piece, even more can be eliminated.  With the few that remain, brute force becomes a more reasonable option.

Logical Reasoning

With all of this classifying, categorizing and eliminating, your child is doing a whole lot of logical reasoning!  And it’s FUN!

When and How to Start

Children can begin putting puzzles together as early as 1 1/2 or 2 years old! But it is NEVER too late to begin puzzling!

For young puzzlers, begin with simple two piece or four piece puzzles, like these from the Little Learning Lovies Store

, backed with thick corrugated cardboard so they’re easy to put together.  Talk with your child about  how you know which two pieces will go together based on the colors and pictures.  If your child chooses two that go together on her own, praise her and ask her how she knows they’ll go together.  Encourage her by repeating the reasons that YOU know they will go together.

When she’s ready, move on to puzzles with more pieces.  These 12 piece wooden puzzles from Melissa and Doug have just enough pieces to be challenging, but not so many that they frustrate!  There are many edge pieces and only a couple of inside pieces, all of which fit in the frame on the box-top! Make sure you explain that the pieces that have flat edges on them must go up against the edge of the box-top. Take time to show and explain how you know where a particular piece must go.   “Look!  This piece has the dino’s head on it, so it must go up near the top.”  Or, “I see grass, so this one must go at the bottom!”

As you move on to harder puzzles, like these puzzles (you can find this type of puzzle at the Dollar Tree, too!), it will become more important to look at the shapes of the pieces.  You can talk about the shapes using any vocabulary you like.  I often speak of “heads” and “arms” and even “feet” when discussing puzzle pieces with my own kids. (Puzzle pieces have always looked like people to me!)  “I’m looking for a piece with a fat head and really skinny arms,” I might say.  Or, “I need one with two heads at opposite ends, and one of them is long and skinny.”

The most important thing you can do to encourage your child to complete a puzzle is to work on it with her.  If she looks like she’s particularly stuck, suggest a piece and explain why you’re suggesting it.  Then let her figure out how it goes in the space!

When she’s ready to move on to harder puzzles, she’ll let you know.  Make sure you have plenty in the house of varying difficulties, just in case she’s ready before you think she is!

Finally, don’t worry if she wants to do the same puzzle over and over again.  She’s trying to internalize the process and make sense of how and why it works.  Just as she’s asked you to read the same story a dozen times in a row, she may want to do the same puzzle a dozen times!

In The Long Run

The skills your child gains from doing jigsaw puzzles are lifelong skills that open up a future of possibilities.  Spatial sense is a necessity for any occupation that requires knowing how to fit things together, like engineering, mechanics, construction, archeology,  and architecture.  Classifying and categorizing are part and parcel of ANY of the sciences, including medicine, geology, paleontology, physics and biology.

So, get puzzling, and relax.  You’re fulfilling your math requirement for the day!

Happy Puzzling!

About the Author Beckie Russell

I'm a high school math teacher and homeschooling mother of two and I LOVE math. Almost all of my thinking happens mathematically, from efficiently scheduling the day's chores, to deciding whether driving 5 miles an hour over the limit is worth the risk of a ticket! But I don't just love MATH. I love TEACHING math! And I hope I can share that love with you, so that YOU love teaching math as much as I do!

Leave a Comment:

Tracey K says 6 years ago

Of course they are! I encourage my 5 year old to do them & many times I have to sit with him while he does it to help him finish it. He is always proud when he completes them. They are not his first activity of choice because they are hard for him but I know it will help him in so many other areas of learning. He is strong in other areas but jigsaw puzzles are hard for him.

cher says 6 years ago

thank you for this post. For years, I have been telling parents of kids with problems-whether social or educational – that helping their children do jigsaw puzzles will help them excel in so many ways. It helps them to see patterns which is useful for reading and math and interacting with others. Again, thank you for sending this information out.

    Beckie Russell says 6 years ago

    I’m glad I’m not the only one with this viewpoint! And I hope we can spread the word enough to get more people puzzling with their kids!

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