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Puzzle Play! Simple Activity with Amazing Developmental Benefits for Your Child

Back to school means back to homework, activities, and hectic schedules. It is hard to carve out time out of busy schedules to just wind-down with your kids and simply enjoy each other’s company.

Puzzles can be a great avenue for spending quality time with your children while helping them develop psychologically, emotionally, physically and academically. You would be amazed at what you can learn about your child while working with him and observing him as he completes a puzzle – the way he approaches and solves problems (does he get frustrated or does he keep searching for the right piece?), fine motor development (can he easily fit the pieces together or is it a challenge?), etc. With younger children, it is easier to sit down with them for 10-15 minutes to work a puzzle. However, older children may require more time. Even if you don’t have 30 minutes or more to spare on some of the more complicated puzzles, you can designate a special spot in your house for puzzles where you can leave it and come back to it when you have time. You might also be surprised to see your child gravitate to the puzzle without you on occasion, as she learns perseverance and the wonderful feeling of accomplishment when the puzzle is completed.

According to the Child Development Institute, there are so many reasons why puzzles are important to the development of your child.

  1. Hand-eye coordination
  2. Manipulating the world around him/her
  3. Developing fine motor skills
  4. Developing gross motor skills for younger kids through stacking blocks and larger puzzles
  5. Problem solving
  6. Shape recognition
  7. Memory
  8. Setting small goals
  9. Achieving a goal and increasing self-confidence

You can also use puzzles to encourage learning and creativity. For instance, if you are constructing a puzzle such as the Melissa & Doug’s Rainforest Puzzle with your preschooler, you can talk about the different animals that you might find in a rainforest and create a story using these animals as characters.  You can also try to recreate the animals on paper using the puzzle as a guide to further enhance their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

A great puzzle to do with all ages (ages 3 and up), although it’s not your traditional puzzle, is Pattern Play by Mindware. This set comes with pattern cards where the child has to figure out how to recreate the pattern using the multi-shaped and multi-colored pieces. Or, for younger children (ages 3-4), they can create their own patterns by fitting the pieces together on the board. This is a wonderful set to leave out on a table – my kids always gravitated toward this set when I left it out and recreated one pattern at a time.

Rotate your puzzles often to keep kids interested and engaged while bonding with their favorite person – you!

About the Author

Shannon McAfee is a mom of three girls in Glen Allen, VA. She is the Founder and Owner of TOYconomy, an online toy rental service for children. She is a huge advocate of play to enhance child development and strengthen the bonds and communication with children.



TOYplay Tips: ZOOB!

This weekend I was bored, and remembered that my Mom brought home a new toy called Zoob. When I opened the box, I saw many different colored and shaped pieces that looked like golf balls. I started snapping all of the pieces together right away.

Zoob comes with 5 different guides that include many tips and creations that you can build. I decided to look through all the pictures in the first guide and made the glasses from yellow, gray, green, blue, and red pieces. The next thing you know, my 6-year-old brother walked in, and I helped him to make a pair of glasses too. He also had made a cellphone completely by himself. After that, I started snapping random pieces together, and built some binoculars. My dad took our picture wearing our new sunglasses.

The next day, I looked through Guidebook 3 which has combinations that show you little tricks to make your creations look more interesting. The “fireman’s weave” looks like a compass. Another combination called the “full swirl” is made from 7 red connectors and fits on your wrist. Finally, the “bending square” twists and turns in your hands. There are so many creations to choose from and I wanted to think outside of the box so I asked my dad if we could build the Washington Monument.

I am a girl, eight and a half years old, in third grade, but only for 2 more weeks! Zoob connectors are a really fun toy. They snap together quickly and allow you to build things fast. I hope that you enjoy them as much as I did!

Developmental Areas: Fine motor skills, creative play, finger dexterity

Recommended Age : 6+ years

Playtime: Endless

Tested and Reviewed by: Addie Brooksbank, Age 8

Extension activities:
1). Use the pieces to practice patterns and sequencing
2). Memory game: create a design using different colors and shapes. Let the child study the design then have him close his eyes. While his eyes are closed, remove one piece. See if he can remember the color of the piece that was removed.
3). Re-create: create a simple design with the pieces. Let the child spend a few minutes studying the design. Give the child the same pieces and see if she can re-create your design by memory.

TOYplay Tips: Q-BA-MAZE by Mindware

Q-BA-Maze is not your ordinary marble run! When I first opened the box and started to assemble the parts, I found the pieces to be very different because of the colors and the unique shapes that they could make.

For the first maze, I followed the instructions and easily built a neat sculpture. After that I started to experiment on my own and rearranged the shapes to make different designs such as animals and silly shapes. Different pieces make the marbles go in different directions, so as you assemble the maze, it is fun to think about what direction you want the marbles to go. Some make the marbles go to either side, some allow the marble to go to just one side, and some drop the ball straight down.

Building the maze is only half the fun. I also enjoyed rolling the marbles down the green, blue, and clear box shaped figures and trying to predict which side they would come out. I came up with many little games to play and many different tracks to roll the marbles down. You can build this however you want and with as many pieces as you want. I hope you can enjoy this product as much as I did.

Developmental Areas: Fine motor skills, cause and effect, spatial reasoning, critical thinking skills, creative play

Recommended Age : 5+ years (small marbles – choking hazard for children under 3)

Playtime:  30 minutes – 1 hour or more!

Tested and Reviewed by: Chase Brooksbank, age 11

TOYplay Tips: KEVA Contraptions 50 Plank Set

As soon as the box from Toyconomy arrived, my three-year-old daughter was eager to open it, since “It’s a package for me!” We immediately got out the Keva Contraptions set and got to work building ramps for the two balls that are included in the package.

Keva planks are familiar to my daughter, since they have thousands of them at our local science museum. Her grandparents also have a bunch they bought after visiting that museum with us. So she is familiar with building with the planks, which is an activity that is fun for all ages. My 80-year-old grandmother who is recovering from a stroke had a great time building towers with them with my daughter on a recent visit.

But the Keva Contraptions set is a little different, since it includes two balls and the idea is to make ramps for them to travel down, so that was a new, exciting concept. She immediately started building a tower just like she always builds and then dropped the balls down inside — the way she built the tower didn’t allow any room for the balls to roll out of the tower, so we talked about the need to create a gap at the bottom, and I used the included idea guide to show her a way they did that.

She said “Oh, oh, oh. Let’s try that!” and started again. After successfully making a tower with a gap at the bottom, she grabbed the idea guide and pointed to a ramp and said “Let’s make that!” So we set to work building a ramp together.

Then we tried to put tunnels at the top and bottom of it which took a few tries to get it just right, but we succeeded after a few frustrated tears. We talked about how we have to just keep trying, and she said “Oh yeah, I can do that! I will just try again!” I love the Keva planks for that — they are remarkably easy to build with so frustration doesn’t happen too often, and when a structure does fall down, it just creates an opportunity to practice and learn perseverance. After building a few other ramps, she said “Let’s just build a tower like I always do” and we built a few different towers with the planks. Then she and Daddy built a house with two different staircases. She played with it for well over an hour until it was bedtime.

This morning when she woke up, the first thing she ran for was the Keva Contraptions set and just started building towers with the planks on her own. I think the ramp concept might be better for kids a little older than her, as they do require a little bit more precision than she usually has with her buildings. But since all Keva planks are exactly the same size, shape, and weight, kids can use this set to build whatever they like, just as my daughter did.

The included balls seem to be basically ping-pong balls, so when we are at the grandparents’ house next week, I’m going to test my theory and see if we can build ramps with the planks and just use ping-pong balls with them. I would recommend the Keva planks on their own or this particular set for kids of all ages — the planks are so easy to build with for kids, and fun to try to create more difficult structures (like spirals!) for adults, so it’s a fun family activity where no one gets bored.

I am planning to buy a set of Keva planks, so we have plenty on hand for building — they truly are incredible and something I know we will all use for years and years to come.

Developmental Areas: Fine motor skills, cause and effect,spatial reasoning, critical thinking skills, creative play

Recommended Age : 7+ years (may be appropriate for younger children ages 3+ depending on skill level and interest – planks are not a choking hazard)

Playtime:  30 minutes+

Tested and Reviewed by: Cara (mom), 3-year-old daughter, and grandmother

TOYplay Tips: Caterpillar Gears Toddler Toy by Melissa & Doug

My 2-year-old son, Jack, has been enjoying playing with the Melissa & Doug Rainbow Caterpillar.  He was immediately attracted to the vibrant colors and unique caterpillar shape.  Once I demonstrated the rotation of the gears, he instantaneously put his motor skills to work.  Jack quickly learned that he can take the gears on and off and change the direction of the rotation.

The next day, I used the colored gears to teach numbers.  We counted 1-6 with the gears on the caterpillar and then did the same removing them.  Before we put the caterpillar away, I reviewed colors as we were putting the gears back on.

Jack had a great time with this classic toy!

Developmental Areas: Motor skills, counting, cause and effect, and color recognition

Recommended Age : 18 months

Playtime:  10-15 minutes

Extension activities: use colored gears to reinforce counting, numbers, and colors

Tested and Reviewed by: Alyssa Chalifoux,  2-year-old son

TOYplay Tips: Sea Life Jigsaw Puzzles In a Box

In lieu of letting my daughter watch a show while I was folding clothes one morning, I pulled out Melissa & Doug’s Sea Life Jigsaw Puzzles In a Box. She loves dolphins, so the dolphin puzzle immediately caught her interest and she was excited to get started.

There are four puzzles total, each contain 12 pieces. What makes these puzzles a little more challenging are the details – the images are very bright, colorful, and sometimes the colors and details blend together.

She was able to put the dolphin puzzle back together pretty quickly. Then she moved onto the shark puzzle. This one was a little more difficult because there were not a lot of contrasting colors, so she had to pay closer attention to the details. This puzzle took her a little longer, and she became a little frustrated at times. As a parent, my instinct (when I noticed her getting frustrated) was to step in and give her a hint or help her. But, I went against my instincts and did not interfere. I was thrilled to see her figure it out all on her own without my assistance!

While putting the puzzle pieces together, she noticed the difference in the shade of the water. The lighter water was on top and the darker water was on the bottom. This opened up the door for a great teaching opportunity, so I asked her why she thought the water was darker on the bottom. She thought about it, and her conclusion was, “that’s where the fish live.” I confirmed her answer that some fish do live at the bottom and then I explained that the water on the bottom of the ocean is dark because the sunlight can’t reach that deep into the ocean. Just asking simple questions and seeing what kind of answers she came up with was a fun activity!

There are many conversations we could have had about the sea life in each of these four puzzles – I look forward to doing it with her again. Maybe next time we’ll talk more about the dolphins and why they need to come up to the surface for air!

Developmental areas: Spatial reasoning, critical thinking skills, motor development.

Recommended ages: 3-5 years

Play time: 20-30 minutes

Extension activities:

1. Go to the library and find books about sea life – specifically dolphins, sharks, sea horses, and tropical fish.

2. Make up a story using the sea animals in each puzzle. Write it down and draw pictures to illustrate the story.

Tested and review written by:

Shannon McAfee (Founder/Owner of TOYconomy), 3-year-old daughter

TOYplay Tip: Crosswise by Mindware

Friday night is the perfect time for family game night. This past week we decided to try out a new game called Crosswise. The box says that “Crosswise is the game that has players thinking in all different directions.”

Thinking in different directions is exactly what it did. Crosswise is a fast paced game that uses a mixture of shape tiles and action tiles to create high-scoring color combinations in horizontal or vertical rows. You must think ahead as every tile that you play might score points for the other team. My kids picked the concept up very quickly, however my husband was a bit frustrated, in the beginning, as you definitely have to remember which axis your team is playing on (horizontal or vertical).

As the game progressed, we were able to invent new strategies to win. It was fun to see new ideas develop, and hear a little table talk, as every move can take your team in an entirely new direction. Different combinations of multiple shapes can earn you points, but watch out as your opponent might play an action tile which lets them move tiles around the board unexpectedly. Crosswise only takes about 20 minutes to play, which is great, as the attention span of my younger children is often short.

There are 6 different colored shape tiles, so the next day I used them with my 5-year-old for patterning and sequencing exercises.

This game is perfect for 2 – 4 players and leaves everyone thinking about their opponent’s strategy.

Developmental areas: Strategic thinking, patterning, sequencing.

Recommended ages: 4 and up

Playing Time per Game: Less than 20 minutes

Extension Activities: use the game pieces to work on patterning and sequencing skills

Tested and review written by:

Jeanne Brooksbank, and 5, 8 and 11-year-old children