Skip to Content

Islands Puzzle

Solve this captivating island puzzle from Donald Knuth as you arrange the thirteen provided letters to trace out the names of each island on the grid.

Today I’m excited to share the Islands Puzzle from Donald Knuth. Yesterday’s post on my most popular blog posts of 2019 had me opening lots of different blog posts to copy and paste pictures.

photograph of beach and ocean with text of "islands puzzle" on top of image

One of the things that caught my eye was a blurb I had written about presenting at the Northeast Oklahoma Math Teachers Gathering. I did a one hour presentation on the Puzzling Classroom. In preparation for that presentation, I put together a bunch of new puzzles.

Curiosity got the best of me, and I found the list of puzzles that I had presented at the conference. I was curious just how many of the new puzzles had made it up on the blog. The answer? Not enough! So, I hope you don’t get too frustrated at me if I share quite a few puzzles in the next few weeks.

The only problem is that the pretty laminated puzzles and puzzle pieces are locked up in my classroom which is locked up in my school which is closed due to COVID-19. So you may just have to live with screenshots of lots of these puzzles until the world calms down and I can update the posts with prettier pictures.

printed copy of Islands puzzle from donald knuth with bag of letter pieces on top

Today’s Islands Puzzle does have pretty pictures because I took them a million years ago and just never got around to writing this post.

This puzzle is very similar to The Four Seasons Puzzle and North East South West Puzzle which both made their appearance on this blog back in early 2018.

close-up of instructions for islands puzzle

In this puzzle, you are provided with thirteen letter squares. These letter squares are placed on the grid in such a way that the seven main inhabited Hawaiian islands can be spelled by moving one square at a time horizontally, vertically, or diagonally.

islands puzzle laying on table with thirteen letters spread out around the puzzle

For example, in this picture, you can see that the letters in “OAHU” and “MAUI” can be traced out.

It is quite a task to find a way to spell out ALL seven of the islands. When I’ve done similar puzzles with students in the past, they have found them to be very engaging. I like that this sort of puzzle has a low barrier to entry.

example of spelling "maui" on grid for islands puzzle

Can you make the grid spell out the name of just one island? How about another? And another? Oh wait, maybe we should start with the longest island name and work towards adding the smaller names…

This Islands Puzzle is by Donald Knuth and is featured in Puzzle Box, Volume 1.

The puzzle board is designed to print on 11 x 17 cardstock. The puzzle pieces are designed to print on letter sized paper.

You can print it on letter sized paper by changing the scale percentage. I had to scale it to 65% to make it fit. Be sure you remember what percent you chose because you will need to scale the puzzle pieces to the SAME percent so that the puzzle pieces fit on the puzzle board properly.

printing instructions for islands puzzle

I hope you and your students have fun with this puzzle! If you haven’t already, I definitely recommend that you check out the Puzzle Box books.

You can get a great taste of what types of puzzles they have to offer you and your students by looking at the free Amazon Preview! Just click the “Look Inside” button for each book. If you’re logged into Amazon, you can click “Surprise Me!” on the left side of the page.

This will let you see quite a few of the puzzles inside the book for free. I typed up my first Puzzle Box puzzle from the free preview. Then, I did some more looking around and knew I had to order it!

sample page from Puzzle Box, Volume 1

Puzzle Solutions

I intentionally do not make answers to the printable math puzzles I share on my blog available online because I strive to provide learning experiences for my students that are non-google-able. I would like other teachers to be able to use these puzzles in their classrooms as well without the solutions being easily found on the Internet.

However, I do recognize that us teachers are busy people and sometimes need to quickly reference an answer key to see if a student has solved a puzzle correctly or to see if they have interpreted the instructions properly.

If you are a teacher who is using these puzzles in your classroom, please send me an email at with information about what you teach and where you teach. I will be happy to forward an answer key to you.