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Playing with jigsaw puzzles is believed to have a number of benefits on children’s cognitive development – especially in areas such as hand – eye coordination, spatial awareness, problem – solving, and in more specific abilities such as maths.

But how do children actually learn to complete a jigsaw, and what are the cognitive processes that underlie this ability?

Recent research by Edinburgh Napier University and the University of East Anglia (UEA) put these educational toys to the test. Unlike previous studies which have investigated puzzle play as a predictor of certain abilities and developmental outcomes, such as those mentioned above, this research focussed on a specific factor involved in jigsaw puzzle completion – pictorial understanding.

The ability to understand pictorial representations is considered to be a key milestone in children’s cognitive development. This enables them to begin to form internal mental images of things that are not actually present to the senses – a critical component in successfully completing a jigsaw puzzle, among many other tasks that we encounter in day-to-day life.

In the study, researchers worked with 169 children aged between three and five years old, to see how they put different types of puzzles together at different ages. The children were given traditional jigsaw puzzles with a picture, jigsaws with no picture, or picture-based puzzles made up of non-interlocking equal-sized rectangular pieces.

Half of the group were provided with a picture guide showing what the jigsaw should look like and the other half worked without a guide. An additional group of children were given a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece and different options to fill in the gap – this was to test their representational abilities.

The researchers recorded how long it took the children to complete the puzzle, and how many times they had attempted to join the puzzle pieces together.

Interestingly, the results of the study showed that while 3-year-olds tended to use trial and error to complete the puzzles, 4-year-olds were able to use information from the picture of the jigsaw to complete the puzzle much more efficiently.

This suggests that children that had developed an understanding of the representational nature of pictures showed improved jigsaw puzzle completion as they were able to better utilize information about what the resulting image was supposed to look like. In other words, children only learn how to complete jigsaw puzzles effectively once they have reached a certain point in development between the ages of 3 – 5 years old – when they understand the representational nature of the relationship between the pieces of the puzzle and what the full picture is intended to look like.

It is believed that this development in pictorial understanding underpins how we learn to draw, paint, and engage in various problem – solving activities. With that being said, Jigsaw puzzles are not only a fun and engaging toy for our children to play with, but they provide us with a unique opportunity for us to learn about our children’s developing minds.


Doherty, M. J., Wimmer, M. C., Gollek, C., Stone, C., & Robinson, E. J. (2021). Piecing together the puzzle of pictorial representation: How jigsaw puzzles index metacognitive development. Child development, 92(1), 205-221.

Fleer, M. (1990). The value of jigsaw puzzles in early childhood education. Early Child Development and Care, 60(1), 73-88.

Levine, S. C., Ratliff, K. R., Huttenlocher, J., & Cannon, J. (2012). Early puzzle play: a predictor of preschoolers’ spatial transformation skill. Developmental psychology, 48(2), 530. Young, C., Cartmill, E., Levine, S., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2014). Gesture and speech input are interlocking pieces: The development of children’s Jigsaw Puzzle Assembly ability. In Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (Vol. 36, No. 36).


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