What are the benefits of Part-Whole Perception Puzzles?

Part Whole Perception Puzzles Montessori toys at two years by Lovevery (1)

Two-piece part-whole perception puzzles can look simple but they can be difficult, they go to the core of what puzzles are about - matching pieces and forming a whole. Part-whole perception puzzles help the child to understand 'part' and 'whole' relationships, that two parts can come together to form a single shape or a single whole picture. They allow for hands-on discovery and exploration of shape, colour, form and spatial relationships.

There is growing evidence that spatial skills exercised during puzzle play are foundational in supporting learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"Through infant age, toddler age and in preschool age children gain important experience and develop concepts through tactile and visual senses of different shapes as they recognise, distinguish and classify. Puzzle-making gives the children practise in recognition of parts of shapes and putting the parts together. Recognition and analyses of patterns are essential components in mathematical development, for geometry, arithmetic and algebraic thinking. Through toddler and preschooler age the children gain experience with patterns and product their own.

The children's problem solving and logical reasoning processes are found to be powerful facilitators of early learning, even more than specific items of mathematical knowledge." (Reikerås, Løge, & Knivsberg 2012).

"When children use individual pieces to create the goal image, they tap into part-whole knowledge. They will become faster and more skilful if they develop ways both to predict the appearance of missing pieces to find them... Children also might create mental representations of what missing pieces must look like by studying the shapes of the holes they will fill. If unused pieces are in the wrong orientation on the table, the search might invoke mental and physical rotations skills, too.

Though there is still much to learn, current evidence suggests that puzzle building is a good spatial activity. A study of elementary-aged children's puzzle building found high, positive correlations between puzzle performance and mental rotation, spatial perception, and spatial visualisation. Another study showed that 2- to 4-year-old children who played with puzzles at home had better spatial skills at 4.5 years old, even after controlling for parents' education, income and language. Children using harder puzzles experienced more parent engagement and spatial language exposure, too. These results are consistent with puzzle building spatial skills, especially with appropriately difficult puzzles and the supportive context of guided play." (Kuhl et al. 2019). 

"We focus on puzzle play as a potentially important early experience related to individual variations in spatial skill for several reasons. First, this kind of play provides a potentially rich context for developing mental rotation skill. That is, puzzle play typically involves both mentally and physically transforming pieces to fit into particular locations and provides immediate feedback as to whether a piece fits or not. This feedback allows children to see whether the outcomes of their mental and physical transformations are accurate...

In addition to engaging children in a spatial activity that involves physical and mental transformations, puzzle play may increase children’s exposure to spatial language as parents frequently use such terms (e.g., “edge”, “flat”, “straight”, “corner”, “curve”, “side”, “top”, “bottom”, “long”, “short”, “inside”, “outside”, “between”, “upside down”, “flip”) to guide children’s efforts during puzzle play. Thus, we also ask whether the amount of spatial language children hear during puzzle play is related to their later skill on a task involving mental rotation and mental translation." (Levine, Ratliff, Huttenlocher, & Cannon 2012).

Wow! I feel like this language is super important. While we want the child to work alone and concentrate I can also see the benefit of working together with the addition of this language.

Part whole perception puzzle landforms by Lovevery at How we Montessori at two years toys

That looks right but he just needs to 'flip' it! This is an example of where the parent or caregiver needs to sit back for as long as they can before helping. Wait and then wait a little longer. If I were going to help my toddler I might say something like 'let's flip it over', or 'try turning it over'. But it will be beneficial if the child can keep on exploring, and persisting through frustration to use their own problem solving skills to work it out for themselves!!

Part whole perception puzzle landforms by Lovevery at How we Montessori at two years toys


Some part-whole perception puzzles are easier such as fraction puzzles, two semi-circles to make a circle or two rectangles to make a square and these can be important for hands on learning regarding fractions and equal parts.

A2Z Montessori Fraction Part Whole Perception Puzzle (1)

Image credit: A2Z Montessori

While other part-whole perception puzzles are more difficult as the parts can be flipped and need to meet the other part in just the right way, requiring further developed problem solving skills.

Part whole two piece puzzles at How we Montessori by Lovevery

Our Land and Sky Two-Part Puzzle Board as pictured here is c/o Lovevery. This is a good example of two-piece, part-whole perception puzzles, we can also use these pieces without the board, directly on a work mat or tray. 


Reikerås, Elin & Løge, Inger & Knivsberg, Ann-Mari. (2012). The Mathematical Competencies of Toddlers Expressed in Their Play and Daily Life Activities in Norwegian Kindergartens. International Journal of Early Childhood. 44. 10.1007/s13158-011-0050-x 

Kuhl, P., et al. (2019), Developing Minds in the Digital Age: Towards a Science of Learning for 21st Century Education, Educational Research and Innovation, OECD Publishing, Paris. 

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), 530–542

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