All About Puzzles

Puzzles are a great way to work on fine and visual motor skills, visual perceptual skills and problem solving skills. Additionally, they can also be a calming self regulation tool or rec/leisure option. There are so many different kinds of puzzles out there and it can be overwhelming to know which kind to use with your student. Today, let’s explore the different kinds of puzzles available, how to choose the right puzzle for your student and some fun activities you can do with puzzles!

Types of Puzzles 

In general, there are two types of puzzles available with some variations that make the puzzles easier or harder for certain students.  There are some puzzles that don’t quite fit into either of these categories, but these are the main types.   

  • Inset puzzles have a base with shapes cut out that the puzzle pieces fit in. Usually there are handles to grab the puzzle pieces, some small and some large. Additionally, you can find inset puzzles  with or without pictures on the background. The picture background makes the puzzle a little easier because the student is looking for the matching picture. The inset puzzle without a picture background is a little harder as the student needs to focus more on the shape of the puzzle piece and not rely on a picture to match. Inset puzzles start with just a few pieces and can get more complicated as pieces are added.
  • Interlocking puzzles require the student to fit pieces together. They can start with a small amount of pieces and increase to a very large amount of pieces , even upwards of 1000! Interlocking puzzles are more challenging than inset puzzles. Doing an interlocking puzzles requires the student to pay close attention to the detail of each piece. 

Choosing the Right Puzzle

The age and skills of your student will indicate what puzzle may be the just right challenge for her.  Here is a general progression from easiest kind of puzzle to hardest puzzle.

  • Inset puzzle with a picture to match
  • Inset puzzle without a picture to match
  • Interlocking puzzle small amount of pieces
  • Interlocking puzzle with more pieces

Some additional factors can also impact how easy or difficult a puzzle is.  When looking at inset puzzles, look to see if the pieces have handles.  If a student has difficulty with fine motor skills, pieces that have large handles will be easier to grasp and may be a better fit than pieces with small handles or no handles at all.  When looking at interlocking puzzles, simple pictures will clear distinction of colors will be easier than more complex pictures with a lot of the same color.  Additionally, interlocking puzzles that come with a designated space to complete them in can be helpful when just starting out as well as providing the visual reference often found on the front of the box so the student knows what he is working towards.

Not sure where to start?  Try starting with a simple large inset puzzle with pictures underneath.  If your student does well with that, try a inset puzzle with more pieces and without a picture underneath.  From there, once a child is really confident with inset puzzles, you can look to introduce simple interlocking puzzles!  You can also consult your OT if you need more specific guidance.

Puzzle Activity Ideas

As an OT, I love using puzzles during my treatment sessions.  But, they don’t have to be done only while sitting at a table.  There are so many ways to sneak in other skill work while using a puzzle!  Here are some ideas.

  • Try hiding puzzle pieces in sand or other sensory material.  Have the student find the pieces first before putting the puzzle together.  
  • Hide the puzzle pieces around your therapy room and do a scavenger hunt for them!  This is a great way to get some motor planning and gross motor practice in before sitting down to do the puzzle.
  • Change positions while doing the puzzle.  You can hold or place the pieces in a way that encourages the child to shift weight and cross midline.  Try holding the piece up high and have the student transition from sitting on the floor to standing and reaching to get the piece.  You can also set the student up to complete the puzzle on his tummy to increase core strength.
  • Try making your own puzzle!  Use a cereal box cover to cut out puzzle pieces and put them back together.  Check out this post for more info on this fun and easy activity!

My Favorite Puzzles

I have tried many different puzzles as a mom and an OT, and you cannot go wrong with the wooden puzzles from Melissa and Doug.  They offer solid and sturdy inset and interlocking puzzles.  I especially love the inset puzzles with the large wooden knobs when working with students who are just learning how to do puzzles.  The dollar store also has awesome options for interlocking puzzles!  They tend to have motivating characters and there are a wide variety of options.  I just recently picked up a few new puzzles for my kids that came in a resealable bag for easy transport this summer.  I also like having some large floor puzzles on hand.  These tend to be interlocking puzzles, but they are great for incorporating gross motor skills and also perfect to do with a partner.


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