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The Best Brain-Building Puzzles for Babies, Toddlers, and Kids

They're a key part of child development.

Despite a shiny, glittering array of new-fangled toys that promise to get your kid on a bioengineering career track before kindergarten, a good-old wooden puzzle for toddlers has as much STEM-boosting potential as any of them. Clever and classic puzzles for babies and toddlers build foundational skills and segue perfectly into more complex puzzles for older kids. Key STEM concepts include abstract thinking, logical reasoning, problem-solving, spatial reasoning, and math — all of which puzzles have covered. Thoughtfully made puzzles are also a life-saver when kids are cooped up at home because they keep children busy without devices or screen time.

To get the most out of baby puzzles, parents should be as hands-off as possible and let children, be it, babies, toddlers, and older kids, work them out on their own, taking whichever approach suits them and making the problem-solving process as open-ended as possible.

“It’s equally educational to bang two knob-shaped puzzle pieces together like cymbals, make up a story in which the puzzle piece mama and baby giraffe get lost, or stack the puzzle pieces into a tower,” says child development expert Julia Luckenbill, who is the infant-toddler program coordinator at the Center for Child and Family Studies at UC Davis.  “This is particularly important because adults tend to see one right way to use materials, while children are more dynamic in the way they think.”

Babies love putting things in and taking them out, so we chose puzzles that let them do just that, while also allowing them to practice their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. With toddlers, who can fit pieces into the right spot, the puzzles are somewhat more complex, and encourage them to develop their shape and color recognition skills, and as well as their spatial skills. Plus, they can use any puzzle for pretend play. As for older kids, it’s brain-twisters, logic puzzles, and other dope STEM toys. 

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The Best Puzzles for Babies 

These colorful, chunky puzzle pieces are easy for the littlest of kids to handle, making for an ideal first puzzle. Also cool, the pieces are made from 100 percent recycled milk jugs, for a nontoxic dishwasher-safe puzzle.

This beautiful four-piece wooden puzzle boosts early sorting skills, and helps babies with their dexterity, and hand-eye coordination.

The fish are multi-textured and make sounds. And babies can take out of the bag. Put them back into the bag. Dump them out of the bag. Throw them into the bag. Over and over and over again, with this starter puzzle, which teaches them how to problem-solve by getting the creatures back in their aquarium.

These chunky wooden puzzles give babies their first taste of hand-eye coordination, and the puzzle pieces double as musical instruments when banged together.

The Best Puzzles for Toddlers 

This wooden puzzle teaches your 2- and 3-year-olds the alphabet in a fun way. The pieces are hardy and thick, so they're perfect for little hands just perfecting how to maneuver pieces into place.

Just in time for summer, this bright, beautiful 16-piece rubberwood puzzle lets kids sort, assemble, and 'chop' fruit — for a fun, fresh way to learn about fractions. Tender Leaf plants a new tree for each one used in the making of one its toys.

This beautifully made make-a-bagel puzzle helps toddlers practice their problem-solving skills while boosting creativity with open-ended possibility and play. And it prepares them for the real-world future problem of what to put on a bagel. The beech-wood and fabric options in this set include: a fried egg, a poached egg, fish, cheese, carrot, rice, and more.

This puzzle may seem simple, but your young toddler is working on complex tasks as she manipulates it. There's a mirror in the center of the puzzle that keeps little kids fully engaged, because what's more rewarding than fitting the puzzle pieces into the right slots? Seeing yourself doing it.

So your 2-year-old fights with you about dressing weather-appropriate? Get him or her this wood puzzle, which has 12 pieces and teaches kids the four seasons. If they flip it over, they can trace it for an added element of creative play. Like all Plan toys, it's made from sustainable materials.

Remember the old, beloved Tetris game? Here's the puzzle version, which encourages problem-solving and creativity since all the pieces have to somehow fit. Each time, the puzzle has a different challenge, because you have to fit the pieces back in, in various ways. The possibilities are endless. And it makes kids' brains work. It's a great puzzle for 3-year-olds.

A puzzle that's a world of possibilities. Each animal piece has the first letter of its name on it — in lowercase on one side, and uppercase on the other — and is handcrafted from birch and rubberwood, and colored with child-safe, non-toxic stains. This 26-piece puzzle offers kids 2 and up endless opportunities for fun and challenging play, from learning the alphabet by puzzling together friendly animals from Alligator to Zebra — to honing their wild and woolly storytelling skills.

The Best Puzzle Games for Kids

Interlock these nine foam neon-glow puzzle pieces into a 36-by-36-inch mat and then set the included battery-operated race car on the track. With its black lights illuminating its path, the car follows the black lines on the mat, leaving glow tracers in its wake. And when kids tire of this track, they can create their own tracks using paper and black markers.

Kids 5 and up can create marble maze sculptures in the shapes of animals, robots, towers, geometric shapes — or whatever else they want. Configurations are unlimited, routes are unpredictable, and marbles travel different routes each time, keeping play full of surprises. Designed by an architect, we love that this challenging but rewarding puzzle game that helps kids hone their problem-solving skills, while building a real foundation for basic physics, 3-dimensional planning, and art-making.

One of the most dope uses of technology: Meet the smart, app-enabled Rubik’s cube, which takes a solo game and makes it social. Once kids master the classic puzzle, they level up, so they continue to be challenged and never get bored. Kids 8 and up can track their progress, plus they can compete with friends and cubers around the world, provided they're all connected via the app.

Players connect the same-colored dots by creating identical paths of the putty without crossing different colors. A fantastic STEM toy for kids eight and up, this puzzle game encourages critical thinking. Plus, it gets increasingly difficult as kids become more proficient at it.

For budding engineers, this colorful marble run offers endless opportunities to build and problem-solve. Beautifully constructed of natural wood, this is a superlative version of a classic skill-building, imagination-boosting game and infinitely expandable.

Kids eight and up will be challenged by this logic-based puzzle, which has players 8 and older build maze towers with a final goal of getting the marble to its destination. But it also hones spatial reasoning and planning skills while offering a Mousetrap-like payoff when he or she gets it right.

For children 7 and up looking for a challenge, Educational Insights’ Kanoodle delivers, providing 3-dimensional puzzles that captivate for hours. Including 200 2- and 3-dimensional puzzles, kids must navigate through hundreds of combinations of the 12 pieces, only one of which is the correct solution. The puzzles themselves become progressively harder, which keeps kids coming back for more. Sell this to your child as a real-life Minecraft.

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