Okay, be honest. Have you ever:Shape puzzle

  • recommended that a family go buy books;
  • explained the importance of sorting colored teddy bears into matching bowls; or
  • listed “placing shapes in a 3-piece form puzzle” as an outcome on the IFSP.

If you answered yes to any of these, well, then you’re in the same boat as me. I’ve done all of these things – before the light bulb went on that all of these things aren’t really all that important in the grande scheme of infant and toddler development. What? Books aren’t important? You may be thinking I have just committed an early childhood travesty. Please don’t exit out of this post just yet. Consider…


Early childhood people like myself, we love our books. Some of us even think that parents must have books for their children, which is a pretty common early childhood bias. Early literacy is very important, and we know from the research that being exposed to books is great for many aspects of development, but having the right toddler book isn’t what early literacy is all about. Being able to point to a picture of Elmo isn’t a game changer, but understanding that a picture is a symbol for the real object is. Being able to hold a word in mind long enough to visually search a page to find the image is an important attention/working memory task. Books are a wonderful tool to help a child learn these abilities, but they aren’t the only way.

Look around the environment with the parent for activities that offer the child opportunities to expand his understanding of symbols and his abilities to remember and follow directions, identify and label objects and pictures, and even use his pointer finger to share or show something. Point to people, items and activities in family photos, in magazines, or on cereal boxes. Practicing with what they already have will be more meaningful (and more realistic for many families) than prescribing a visit to the bookstore.

Sorting Colors

The world is full of colors, especially for babies. Look for opportunities to sort toys when putting them away, sort socks from the clean laundry, sort colored cups and bowls in the cupboard, or even sort foods at snack time. Sorting teaches children to attend to specific characteristics and match items based on them. There are so many ways to teach this concept without colorful teddy bears that really serve no other purpose. Placing sorting in the context of a real world activity is going to help the child remember the concept so much better.

Shapes in a Puzzle

Every assessment has one – the formboard. We (and parents) get excited when a child can place the shapes correctly, like it’s a badge of superior intelligence. Puzzles, again, aren’t all that important in the grande scheme of development, but what they show us is. When a child can place pieces in the puzzle, he’s demonstrating his understanding of concepts like matching and spatial relationships between the piece and corresponding hole; his ability to persist, problem-solve,and follow directions; and perhaps his ability to communicate using social interaction and/or sounds or words that he needs help. He can grasp the shape, visually scan the puzzle, attend long enough, and complete a task demonstrated or presented to him. He can practice these abilities when playing with many other toys, when he follows directions to get his ball and give it to daddy, or when he fits his cup into the cup holder on his stroller. Taking a puzzle out to the home each week won’t teach him how to use these abilities in his everyday life, where he really needs them.

On the Other Hand…

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with playing with puzzles, sorting toys, or looking at books if that’s what the child and family likes to do. They will benefit more from understanding the underlying abilities that these activities help their children learn. Adult learners want to know the purpose of what they’re doing and why it’s important for their child. Think deeper than the surface assessment skill and help families understand what our more formal skills tell us about a child’s development. Armed with that knowledge, families are better able to recognize learning opportunities when they happen everyday, and that will result in more intervention and more success for the child!

How would you translate skills like “building a train of cubes” or “using a stick to reach a toy” into everyday abilities?

What do you think about the suggestion that puzzles and books aren’t required for healthy development?

4 comments on “Books & Puzzles Are Not Required…What?

  • Jeff Mullins says:

    Excellent article! I appreciate the way you are reframing these classic early childhood activities into functional, routine-based skills. This enables parents to be teachers of their children regardless of what is on hand. Also, by looking at these activities in more functional ways, we are digging deeper into the developmental sequence of skills as opposed to the discrete skills of placing the correct piece into the form board or sorting the correctly colored bear into the corresponding bowl.

    • Thanks Jeff! Yes, you got it exactly! Do you have any suggestions for how you help parents dig deeper and understand those important underlying skills? I truly think THAT is the key to really successful intervention – helping parents understand what those underlying abilities are and how to promote them everyday.

      • Jeff Mullins says:

        Yes, Dana, I just recently had a family request ideas to teach their two year old colors and shapes. Due to this child’s delays, he had several preliminary skills to develop prior to this, so we used the idea of colors to teach how to do a simple learning task. We came up with a simple put-in, Structured Teaching-style task associated with a single color following the child’s natural interest in cars (i.e. putting red cars into a small hole on the top of a red container). We were able to start teaching him how to do a simple task while pacifying the mother’s interest in teaching a pre-academic concept.

        • What a creative way to address the mother’s priority and get at what the child really needed to learn, Jeff! I really like how you were able to find a way to do both. Have you read about the work in executive functions that has been floating around – about how helping young children learn persistence, attention, problem-solving, etc. is more important thank pre-academics like colors – and more predictive of academic success? Sounds like something you probably already know about or would be interested in!


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