Montessori Theory, On Parenting, Social and Emotional Learning, Theory and Practice

The Puzzle-Child

Over the years of working in Montessori classrooms I’ve met many children who are eager to attend lessons, engage in follow-up work, and share their new knowledge.  And then there are the occasional “puzzles” (as my son’s Primary guide once referred to him).  How do you know if you live or work with a puzzle-child?


Puzzle-children are those for whom learning comes easily but who see most teaching as a hindrance to their own learning agenda. On a good day, they grumpily humor your agenda for a short while and then stealthily slink away to pursue their own interests.  But most days, your invitation will send them into fight/flight/freeze mode: they either become argumentative (fight), run away from you (flight), or shut down (freeze), refusing to speak or make eye contact.

I used to think puzzle-children felt intimidated by the work or lacked the desire to learn.  But these children aren’t insecure or apathetic – quite the contrary!  I started taking the time to connect with puzzle-children to understand why they rejected lessons, and the phrase they said again and again was: “I already know that.”  Upon gentle prodding, it became clear that indeed, they did understand the concepts I was trying to present.

Puzzle children don’t care about your ego. In fact, in a battle of egos, theirs will always win.  They don’t care about sitting politely through your carefully planned presentation or showing you what they know.  They don’t care about your album sequence, the state standards, or your lesson plan.  They know what they want to learn, and they know they can use you as a resource to overcome any gaps in knowledge that pop up as they pursue their own explorations.

And that right there is the key to engaging successfully with a puzzle-child.  You have to be like a floor lamp: present but unobtrusive, and willing to shed light on whatever topic the puzzle-child approaches you about.  The puzzle-child will often be found with his nose in a book; tinkering with random objects; or using Montessori materials in ways that might seem sacrilegious at first but that, upon closer inspection, constitute legitimate intellectual explorations.

Conversations are essential for connecting with the puzzle-child.  But you have to watch your tone of voice: puzzle-children detect the moment you switch to a “teacher” voice, and in that instant you’ve lost them.  They also detect when you’re trying to quiz them.  You’re better off assuming they’re already experts. Use precise terminology when chatting with them; rest assured they’ll pepper you with questions if they don’t know what you’re talking about!

Puzzle-children love stories and experiments, and they are cosmic thinkers (meaning they’re able to effortlessly make connections among seemingly unrelated topics).  They’re autodidacts who focus on a topic until they have filled their cup. And then, just as quickly as the interest blossomed, it seems to disappear (but rest assured that the knowledge remains).

For puzzle-children and their adults, the most difficult times are those when the puzzle-child is between interests.  They’re often restless and irritable, flitting from one activity to another.  This is an important time for puzzle-children, and one should not jump in to fill the void with busy work or adult teaching agendas.  For it is precisely the space and boredom of their aimless roaming that will help them find their next “big thing”.

Puzzle-children don’t need to be taught how to learn.  If anything, they need to be protected from well-meaning adults who want to impose their teaching methods at the expense of the puzzle-child’s creativity and resourcefulness.  It’s a blow to the adult’s ego not to be needed, especially when your entire identity rests on being a transmitter of knowledge.

For teachers and parents of puzzle-children, it’s time to change that identity and protect these powerful and eccentric learners.  Help the puzzle-child learn how to communicate their needs and let them know you’re there as a resource.  Prepare their environment with quality books and essential Montessori materials. Provide open-ended tinkering, building, crafting and drafting materials.  Go outside together and explore nature through their eyes.  Listen, observe, document, trust, and wait.  Be flexible, creative, and honest, and above all, be genuine.  Follow the child.

“Our care of the children should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” – Dr. Maria Montessori


11 thoughts on “The Puzzle-Child”

  1. Thank you for this piece on the puzzle child. It is so well-written and I immediately started identifying individual students. And I think this must have been my husband when he was a child!

    1. I’m so glad it was beneficial! These children can be challenging to work with, especially in the early years (Primary and Lower El), but treat them with respect and they’ll amaze you!

  2. Such a wonderful Montessori´s phrase!
    My son is something like a puzzle kid, especially when we are having our “montessori classes”. When we are studying for his school (he goes to a mainstream one) he suffers a lot. He really struggles with it. But when we “do montessori” is incredible, because it seems like a box was opened. But he doesn´t like to follow the presentations either. Thank you for the post.

  3. Very nicely written and yes I can already identify these children in my classroom. However, I think if we give this space and freedom to the puzzle children, it hinders the learning of the rest of the children of the class. These children tend to think that they are above the others in their knowledge and skill and care less about the struggles and time and effort of the others leading the others demotivated and sad. In a home setting, its a different ball game but in a classroom full of differently natured children, rules have to be consistent and fair to all. Sometimes the puzzle children have to do something that is not necessarily for their benefit or upto their intellectual capacity. They must be able to see beyond themselves and respect the rights of others (even a well-meaning but obstrusive adult). When we give them this ‘privilege’, they very easily internalise it and it continues throughout their life. I think the traits that start to go missing are humility and empathy for others. Its impostant for them to have opportunities to learn these and what better way than do work that is easy or less challenging yet important!

    1. I respectfully disagree with your comment. I too recognized these children in my class and I cannot relate to your comment at all. Why would a child choosing to pursue his own learning interests hinder other children? I have found the opposite to be the case in my classroom. The puzzle child is so into his interest that the other children are fascinate and drawn to also explore the interest or pursue their own interest with the same intensity.

      I may be missing something but I cannot make the connection your are making with humility and empathy. Infact, I think that when the adult understands and follows the child, they are modeling humility because they are not assuming they know better that the child. They are aalso modeling empathy by understanding the child’s need. The child will see and benefit from these examples and is even more likely to emulate them.

      I have also found them when they fill up their tanks, they have more of those moments where as the author says, they humor us.

      1. Ofcourse all that you are saying is perfectly true. What I meant is that when we give a name like a “puzzle child” (even if it is just in our minds), we put a label and treat the children according to that label which is then perceived as a privilege by the child in question. If we look at every child differently and don’t group them into categories, we will meet their needs and do whatever is necessary for the child as well as the classroom as a whole.

  4. Can I translate this and post it on our public forum? If so, please send me a picture and mini bio if it’s not too much. We have tons of puzzle children and the teachers think their answer is in controlling them….James is young but maybe he’s half a puzzle child…he really already knows. Violet was so concrete until last week…James already asks abstract questions. He asked me the other day “Why did God make bad people?” because we read from the bible together that God created everything…so he realized God created bad people too! I was like “how do I explain this to you?”…I tried the best I could, not dumbing down the content but just thinking even if he doesn’t understand all I am saying, some day he will….

    Anyway, I want to translate this….please let me know if I have you permission!


  5. What a lovely post Pilar! You painted exactly the pictures of two children I know. May we always find the wisdom to guide the children in our care by understanding and following them.

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