This time of year is the perfect storm. IEP season is in full swing, Spring break is just around the corner (woohoo) and everyone is feeling a bit squirmy and squirrelly (including the SLP). I like to have a variety of therapy options to keep my kids engaged, but my budget is tight right now. I looked in my magic cabinet of therapy materials to see what I could add to my bag of tricks that wouldn’t elicit groans of “no, not that.” I spotted a shiny metal box that contained a 30 piece Star Wars themed puzzle and knew I hit the jackpot!
Really, a puzzle? You put it together and it’s done, boring. Well, yes, it can be if you use it exactly like that. How about using the puzzle pieces as a therapy activity to work on gestalt thinking with your social learners? Show a piece at a time (without showing a picture of the final product) and have them make smart guesses as to what the puzzle might be. Have any friends that focus on the unimportant details and miss the big picture? Me too, and this is harder for them than you would think! Add in a little group work razzle dazzle and your students will be working together to problem solve putting the picture together (without a model). You are embedding the Social Thinking® concepts of turn taking, sharing personal space, regulating emotions (when the pieces don’t fit quite right), thinking with your eyes and sticking with a group plan!
Working on non-verbal skills? Have your students put the puzzle together without talking. They have to watch each other, use gestures and pay attention to cues that it’s their turn to put their puzzle piece in. For our students with impulsivity or difficulty with emotional regulation, this might be challenging! Start with short, easy puzzles to help them feel successful and build resilience in these skills.
With younger students or students working at an early social cognitive level, you can use wooden puzzles with several pieces. I use the puzzle pieces as a template to cut out pictures from magazines or google images that fit a theme. For example, I might cut out pictures of candy, pumpkins, costumes, October on a calendar and a bat. Then I ask the students to take turns removing the puzzle pieces to reveal the clues and make a guess as to what all these pictures are talking about (Halloween). You can scaffold the picture clues from easy to more difficult as they develop this skill.
Reinforce conversational turn taking by giving each student a few puzzle pieces, with you providing a topic of discussion. As each student adds a comment or connected question to the conversation, they get to add a piece of the puzzle. Start with large piece puzzles at first (8-10 pieces) and as your students get the hang of this, add more pieces and change topics within the conversation. You could also choose puzzles that are areas of high interest for your students (Star Wars, Super Mario Brothers, Legos, Dinosaurs) and use the puzzle pieces as reinforcers for maintaining topic during therapy. They earn a piece of the puzzle each time you catch them keeping their brain in the group (or whatever social concept you are working on that day). If you can’t find a puzzle that matches an area of interest (guinea pigs, for example) just find a google image of said interest, print, laminate and cut into puzzle pieces, voila’! Make sure you leave a few minutes at the end of the session for the student to put the puzzle together.
Do you use puzzles in social language therapy? Share your ideas here!