Bright 4-Year-old Having Problems with Visual Puzzles.

Updated on January 09, 2013
S.B. asks from Encino, CA
13 answers

Hi Moms -
I have a bright four-year-old with impressive verbal, problem solving, and pre-reading skills (so say his pre-k teachers - not just me bragging!). Age- appropriate picture puzzles, however, have him stumped. He has problems with figuring out which pieces go together, and especially the orientation of a piece (for example, he might figure out which piece matches with another, but then try to put them together with one picture piece upside down or sideways). I generally wouldn't be concerned about it, but the school we're districted for is not so great, so I'm hoping he'll qualify for a gifted magnet program. If the tests for the magnet school have a visual puzzle component, he probably wouldn't do so well. So - here's my question: is there anything to be done about it? I don't plan to drill him on puzzles, but would like to find fun ways to help build that "muscle."

Although I welcome all comments relevant to the question, I really would appreciate comments from parents whose kids had similar issues wtih puzzles or teachers with insight in this area. Please, no "guessing" as to diagnoses, unless you have real experience or insight. Thanks!

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So What Happened?

Thanks for the responses so far. To clarify in response to some answers - I'm not stressed about this (I mentioned that this issue generally wouldn't concern me). I also am not planning to push my son - I kind of thought my statements that I am hoping to get him in a magnet simply because our local school is not so good and that I wasn't planning to drill him would make that clear. I also mentioned no "diagnoses" to avoid folks from jumping to conclusions about learning disabilities, etc. So please, take me at my word on these things, and no need for answers telling me not to stress or not to push him. I'm doing neither.
BTW - Jo W.'s comment may be spot on - my son is a very logical thinker and great at logic problems; picture puzzles don't fall within his wheel house..

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answers from Miami on

He's still young. His brain is "malleable" and can be trained. Work with him on the puzzles. Make them fun so that he doesn't get frustrated. If I were you, I'd find someone who does work with children in this regard, and get them to work with him. Try talking to an OT about this. I'll bet she could refer you.

I don't think that you need to worry about a "diagnosis". Lots of people are good at some things and not others. I will tell you that I have NEVER been good at puzzles. My mom gave me legos and she said I could never make anything with them. I started my sons early with duplos and Thomas the Tank Engine trains and train tracks. My older son can build ANYTHING, with or without schematics. My younger son is not as good at it, but he tried to keep up with his brother and they played together with their lego and train "universe" all the time.

That's why I think that you need to actually actively work on this with him. This is spatial sense and it's actually very important to us as adults. It doesn't mean that you are trying to make him into an engineer. However, you will help him in all kinds of ways if you help him build this "muscle".

Get help doing it - you won't regret it!


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answers from San Francisco on

I taught in a gifted program at a major Ivy League university (online program for profoundly gifted), I was in a gifted program and I have been a college professor for over twenty years now. Both my kids are probably gifted, but I have never had them tested.

Please relax. There is nothing wrong with your son. It is not a matter of trying to work that muscle or otherwise get him to perform to a particular standard. No gifted program should exclude a truly gifted student on the basis of one test. Many gifted people have learning differences. Professional gifted educators know this. (The only concern would be if this magnet school will try to discourage gifted kids with learning differences as a way to manage resources, but if that is the case, you would not want your kid there.)

My eldest son can do puzzles like no one else in the family, except me...I can fly through puzzles even faster than he can. He just got a merit scholarship to a private high school because of his academics and his leadership. However, also like me, he cannot spell worth a damn. I mean really poor spelling. Shockingly bad.

My younger son does not like puzzles and admits that he is no good at them. He does, however, have perfect pitch and is currently writing a novel, as in a REAL novel. He taught himself how to write a novel by reading web sites to learn the process and structure. He is on the 7th chapter. He is nine. I am not pushing him in the least to do this, even though I am an English professor. WHen I wake up in the morning, he is sitting at the computer typing away and has been for an hour or so. Just today he asked me a question about plot revision and I could not answer. He has a gift I wish I had, but don't. That is the thing about true giftedness. You cannot force it. It just is and it does not come in one nice neat package that can be easily assessed, especially in a very young child.

Your little boy sounds lovely. Let him be who he is and let him explore the world through the gifts that he has been given. I promise it will be okay and you will be astounded with the results.

7 moms found this helpful


answers from St. Louis on

Honestly I am stupid tired at the moment and should have taken my contacts out an hour ago, but you seem stressed.

I am crazy smart and always tested well as a child. I can solve a Rubiks cube in 20 seconds if I have a tool to pop the first piece out. :p What I mean is I am logic based as are a lot of high intelligence people. My mind will always seek out the best solution, like taking the stupid cube apart.

Picture puzzles are not logical.

The good news is if anyone is looking to test intelligence they are not going to pull out a hundred piece puzzle. :)

I wish I could explain this better but honestly most of my brain is trying to convince my legs to walk me to the bathroom before I gouge my eyes out. Doesn't leave much for thinking.....

Oh, you can't build that muscle. What will happen is the need will become irrelevant.
Oh, so last night when I was yanking those things out of my eyes I thought of an example, it was this stupid thing called minds eye or something like that. Very popular in the 90s. They were these god awful pictures that if you stared at them long enough became 3d images of stuff. Except they don't work for most people with high intelligence. We actually break down images differently than most.

I remember as a child looking at optical illusions and saying well it is this. Then people would say, no, you are supposed to see this. Well I see that!

People that test know what they are looking for so don't push him to learn something that will do nothing but frustrate him.
I also feel I should point out I have ADHD, you will find most people who hang on the tails have some malady of the brain.
Oh yeah, I guess I should explain the puzzles. When I look at a building I see the building for a split second then my brain breaks it down into pieces so in a normal state I see bricks, windows, doors, roof, get the idea. So a puzzle is a picture so the mind does the same thing but it also focuses on differences, things that should not be there. Those slices they put in a puzzle do not form any logical pattern. They have no place in the structure my brain composes.

I can flip a puzzle upside down and do it quicker than anyone I know. Go figure.

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answers from Portland on

I'm kind of in agreement with the 'take a breath and relax' camp, myself. That said--

REAL EXPERIENCE: my son (5) sometimes is challenged by some puzzles. His challenge is having to repeatedly focus on discrete objects. He has trouble with his eyes-- not vision acuity, per se, but with the ability of his eyes to work together (eye teaming, as the doc calls it). His diagnoses are 'ocular motor dysfunction' and 'convergence insufficiency' (his eyes have a harder time coming together to focus on things that are closer to him). This was determined after an evaluation with an eye doctor who was recommended to us by an OT (who we were mistakenly sent to) and we are doing eye therapy to improve his convergence and to supply correct biofeedback to his eyes/brain so he can learn to work with the ocular motor dysfunction. He also has a 504 plan.

This is not what I would wish for any kid or parent, however, if you think there is a vision/eye function issue, I would encourage you to check it out early on, and that's why I include this, because a lot of kids are diagnosed after they are having other troubles with learning in school. I'm not saying this is your situation, but do want to give parents information....

The best insight (from my time teaching preschoolers) I can give you is to keep the puzzles simple and fun. Start with very, very simple puzzles, ideally younger than what is "age appropriate". You do want to be very patient with him and give him opportunities for mastery and success, so he will feel competent enough to work at the harder puzzles. What I often did with the kids is to start with floor puzzles that go in a row, instead of a picture puzzle; this way, there are only two options as to how things fit instead of four. (only two sides connect.) Do this with him, provide lots of encouragement, note similarities where pieces should connect....and then, be patient. Once you are seeing success, move to larger picture floor puzzles or the 'tray' puzzles (fit into a tray) with clear pictures--not too 'busy' visually. If there are too many pieces, presort (for example, with my barn puzzle, I would separate the blue silo pieces and the red barn pieces, and then have my son build the silo first; the red barn pieces would then be sorted into 'mostly red barn' and "mostly animals in the barn' and we would work on one of those areas). Here, you are teaching him to sort similar pieces and again, keeping it simple, you are helping him build confidence to continue and to provide a sense of pride and competence. When the puzzle is completed, leave it out for the rest of the day. Kids are proud of their work.

And so on... with each new level of challenge, offer lots of encouragement and support. Be very, very patient. My strongest suggestion is that to keep it fun, you have to lay off. No pressure. If you see him getting stressed, just take a break and come back to it in a while, a day or two even. Choose puzzles that correspond to an interest of his. My son could care less about lambs and cute trains, but will happily sit down to work on dinosaur puzzles. At four, he was pretty challenged by puzzles; at five, he's still challenged but right on track for who his is and his abilities. A lot of stuff happens between those ages. (FWIW, he didn't recognize a single letter or number at four and is proficient at five and a half. All that to say, they do usually get it--just that it's usually in their time, not ours.)

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answers from Dallas on

You know, there are a lot of geniuses that are terrible at puzzles. Children will have strengths and weaknesses. This could be a weakness in your child. (Weaknesses ARE OK, and happen in every child...every human.) What do we do, when we need to improve on anything? Practice, practice, practice. The only way to get something, is to keep trying. Allow him to fail, and try again. Don't get too involved, but encourage by praise and pointers. If he stops enjoying it, take a break for a while, and don't let him think it's a "thing." He is only 4, and he will NOT learn, if it's not fun.

He might NEVER be good at puzzles, and that is perfectly fine. I score off the charts, nearly perfect in language, memory, and creative thinking. I can photographically remember anything, and names, and the color my preschool teacher was wearing at our Christmas party, my friend's phone numbers from kindergarten, etc. Place some math in front of me, and you might think I have a learning disability! When people excel incredibly in certain things, they are often not gifted in others. This is natural.

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answers from Portland on

I suggest that it's good that you are puzzling about this. One component of intelligence tests is to fit shapes together to make another shape or be able to recognize the shape and that sort of thing. I don't know at what age they include this in the tests. I suggest that you ask to have him evaluated by the school district. They are mandated by federal law to provide evaluations for any difficulty that could negatively affect learning.

I might first talk with his pediatrician. He should have a better idea at what age this sort of puzzle solving should be happening or if it's important at all.

Later: I reread your question and have a different comment now. Based on my experience with my grandchildren, I think that the ability to do picture puzzles can happen at an age later than 4. My grandchildren could not do puzzles very well at 4. My granddaughter then began to be interested in them when she was 5 or 6. My grandson, who is now 9, can do puzzles but is not at all interested in them. When he was younger he enjoyed them but has lost interest now. Without the interest he appears to be unable to do them even tho he has done them in the past.

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answers from Eugene on

Forgive me if you've already tried these--but I have sons (2 & 5) who love puzzles--perhaps it's innate--but we also do them a lot!

When they are 2ish I give them two pieces that match and point out the matching features, "look here's an eye and there's an eye" can you put the eyes together (we always start with eyes). Then I give him the tummy piece. I also always tell the little one to "twist" and to "keep twisting" when he puts it in sideways or upside down. We also started with the puzzles with the wooden frames when Walgreens when they are little (12 piece).

It also helps to have puzzles of something they love--dinosaurs, trains, etc. We also like them in different sizes--little ones from Walgreens and big floor ones from Melissa and Doug.

Maybe my kids are just a little puzzle-obsessed, but they both really enjoy them (and I've learned to love them :)--and that's what we did in our house.

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answers from Appleton on

I have an above adverage IQ and I could never do puzzels, except the puzzel of the U.S. My ex-husband could do them and my oldest daughter loved them big jigsaw puzzels thrilled them. To me all the peices look the same and I simply can't figure them out. I'm lucky if I can get the border together. My ex also has an above adverage IQ.
Dyslexia runs in my family and my oldest and youngest and I all have it. My oldest has the traditional form, difficulty reading. My son and I are great readers but math confuses me so much I can't get it. An algrebic problem looks like a foreign language to me, I can't process them. I took a college class a few years back and even though I worked my butt off I never got past chapter 2.
Learning disabilities are a relatively new science. I don't think the final answers have been written about any of them. A lot of it has to do with perception and the way each person sees something.
I'm not saying he has a learning disability but it could be part of the answer. Remember some of the most brilliant minds in history had a learning disability.

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answers from St. Louis on

(sigh) couple of things jumping out at me:

"no guessing" as to diagnosis.....
"help build that muscle".......
"bright 4yo" & "hoping he'll qualify for a gifted magnet program"

Soooo, here's my very 1st thought: RELAX....gee whiz, the kid's only 4!
Each & every single one of us learn in different ways. He's excelling in many areas, please do not forcefed him in the others!

Allow him easy access to a variety of puzzles. Coach him patiently, allowing him to make mistake after mistake. & throw some spatial exercises in the mix....some blocks/Legos for stacking, a supply of cardboard boxes for building....& you'll see an improvement - IF & only IF - this concept is comfortable for him.

& above all else....don't push him, don't plan his future too far in advance!

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answers from New York on

As the mom of a gifted kid who also has some mild delays here and there, here is my (biased as hell) opinion.

Everyone has multiple intelligences. There's verbal reasoning, visual/spatial reasoning, mathematical, musical, social, kinesthetic, all that stuff.

Among the gifted population, there are two basic patterns. Some gifted people are well rounded. They're just better than everyone else at every single thing. Others are "spiky." They're exceptionally talented in one or two areas, and they really struggle in others. I don't think of myself as gifted, but I am very verbal and pretty much useless at everything else. My son (age 6) reads and comprehends at a 6th-grade level, but he's got notable kinesthetic delays.

And, the spiky types have a right to gifted education too.

The thing is, you can't "coach" a child who's gifted in one area to be gifted in another. The child is fine just as he is. What you need to do is coach the adults to understand and appreciate this.

What you really need to do is hire a professional advocate who can argue for your son's inclusion in a magnet program in spite of his delays in one limited area. An advocate will understand your son's right to an education that's commensurate with his abilities and will argue for it in legal terms that pretty much put the fear of God into schools. These services don't come cheap, but if you can possibly swing it as a one-time thing, it'd be worth it.

So, long, rambling buildup to a simple, straightforward recommendation. Sorry 'bout that ;)

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answers from Los Angeles on

Don't worry about it. He just can't do puzzles right now. My son is 10 years old now. He's in the gifted program at school. He was speaking in full sentences at 1 year old. He's a math wizard - he was counting to 100 at 2 years old, doing math in his head by 4 years old. However, he could not figure out puzzles to save his life. No matter how many times I showed him or explained about edges and matching colors he couldn't do it. He would try pieces upsidedown, backwards, edges in the middle of the puzzle. He's better at them now but he's not that interested in puzzles. He can, however, figure out all the puzzles on Skylanders in about 2 minutes. This might not be your son's thing but he'll be awesome at other things!

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answers from Los Angeles on

I come from a puzzle loving family and I know for a fact that solving puzzles is a skill that needs to be learned. So practice, would be my best piece of advice. Spacial relations is a tricky thing to get your brain to process. Stop worrying and just buy a few good wooden puzzles and let him practice!

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answers from Eugene on

Kids who are very advanced in one area tend to lag behind in another temporarily. Then they usually catch up. The brain can only grow so fast and learn so much in 4 years!

Give him time and don't stress. Children learn best by playing so make puzzles available to him but let him play with them and discover them on his own. You want him to love learning for the long haul, and the best way to do that is to relax and let your son learn at his own pace.

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