Block play and spatial skills

It's time to get blocks back into the spotlight!

Rosanne Regan Hansel | January 2019

As I load up my trunk with containers of blocks and found materials in preparation for yet another training for early childhood teachers, I tell myself that I am getting too old for all this schlepping. Just as quickly as the thought crosses my mind, a surge of excitement and energy pulses through me. After six years of facilitating professional development sessions on the exploration of materials with teachers, I am more convinced than ever that blocks are one of the most essential materials for the early childhood classroom.

boy and girl play with blocks

“Why then, in the name of school readiness, is block play marginalised, if not disappearing from children’s classrooms?” asks Margie Carter in the foreword to Creative Block Play (Hansel 2017). Increasingly, young children today are sitting in front of two-dimensional screens and worksheets instead of having playful, hands-on, sensory experiences with three-dimensional objects (Hansel 2015). Why is this a problem and what is it about blocks, and wooden unit blocks in particular, that make them such an important material for young children?

The science of block play, maths and shapes

Many early childhood experts, including Friedrich Froebel, Caroline Pratt, Harriet Johnson, Elizabeth Hirsch, and Mary Jo Pollman, have documented the value of blocks for children’s learning, offering evidence that when children are given time to plan, construct, and create with blocks, they develop socially, emotionally, cognitively, and physically (Hansel 2017, 5). This evidence is now being confirmed by scientists using new technologies to see the inner workings of the brain.

According to Dr. Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, brain research now shows that as you learn something deeply, the synaptic activity in the brain will create lasting connections (unlike when you learn something in a superficial way) and that “synapses fire when we have conversations, play games, or build with toys” (Boaler 2016, 1). In other words, building with blocks to experience their three-dimensional properties will create a lasting pathway in the brain and a deeper understanding of shape, whereas identifying three dimensional shapes on a workbook page is unlikely to build understanding of shape and three-dimensionality.

block play

The importance of spatial skills

In addition, there is exciting new evidence linking good spatial skills and children’s future achievement in all the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects (Lubinski 2013; Newcombe 2010). “Despite the evidence, however, the importance of spatial skills is often overlooked as a key feature of STEM education. This frequent neglect of spatial development creates an additional barrier to children’s STEM learning” (Berkowicz and Myers 2017) and reminds those of us in early childhood education that we must start paying attention to developing spatial skills. While laying the foundation in the STEM subjects is important, especially for underserved populations and those underrepresented in the STEM fields, including girls, spatial skills are critical in many other fields, as well as in everyday life, such as when we load up a trunk with blocks and navigate our way to a new location for the first time.

The great news is that spatial skills can be improved with practice. While not all experts agree on a common definition of what spatial skills are (Hansel 2017, 20), most agree that the use of manipulatives helps children make sense of abstract concepts. Wooden unit blocks are a perfect example of a child-friendly manipulative that can be used to strengthen spatial skills. Think about how a child recreates a zoo with blocks while closely referring to a map of the zoo and carefully ensuring that each zoo animal fits into the enclosures she has made to scale.

Which block activities foster spatial skills?

Start with giving children ample time for open-ended exploration with blocks, but don’t stop there. If you really want to see children’s spatial thinking flourish, target the spatial skills in the table below and offer block activities that encourage spatial language and challenging tasks! Now the spotlight is on you!

block play

Block activity Spatial Skill
Constructing with blocks Transforming shapes by rotating, sliding or flipping them (making as many combinations as possible through manipulation)
Filling containers with blocks; filling enclosures with objects Learning to judge capacity and volume. How many can fit into the container? Does the object fit into the enclosure?
Fitting blocks together and taking them apart Decomposing (part-whole integration, which involves seeing the shapes embedded in other shapes and seeing them as a whole)
Changing the shape and arrangements of blocks by stacking or enclosing Composing (physically or mentally combining shapes to make different shapes)
Observing block constructions from different viewpoints, such as from above, from behind or in front of a mirror Perspective-taking (considering the perspective of someone who is in a different location and how that view might be different from yours)
Describing positions, directions and distances such as outside, inside, over and under while building Using spatial language in context
Building on the floor or outdoors Moving one's body in space
Using blocks to represent other objects Representing symbolically one object for another
Interpreting spatial relations in drawings, pictures and photos Using non-verbal reasoning. Seeing connections between three-dimensional objects and two-dimensional representations
Drawing three dimensional constructions or reproducing real-life structures Understanding spatial relationships and reinforcing visual-spatial memory
Comparing and measuring the size, shape, thickness, length and height of blocks Comparing objects. Scaling up or down (imagining objects or amounts as proportionally larger or smaller)
Making a model from a map or blueprint Visually interpreting maps and blueprints
Building a bridge Learning to judge the distance between objects
Designing with blocks Creating patterns (radial, linear, symmetrical tessellations)
Playing hide and seek with blocks Locating and remembering locations of objects
Putting blocks back on the shelves (marked with the shape of the blocks) Classifying, sorting and sequencing shapes

block play


Berkowicz, Jill and Myers, Ann. “Spatial Skills: A Neglected Dimension of Early STEM Education.” Retrieved on June 27, 2017 here.

Boaler, Jo. 2016. Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hansel, Rosanne. 2017. Creative Block Play: A Comprehensive Guide to Learning through Building. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Hansel, Rosanne. 2015. “Bringing Blocks Back to the Kindergarten Classroom.” Young Children 70 (1):44-51.

Lubinski, David. 2013.“Early Spatial Reasoning Predicts Later Creativity and Innovation, Especially in STEM Fields.” Science Daily. July 15.

Newcombe, Nora. 2010. “Picture This: Increasing Math and Science Learning by Improving Spatial Thinking.” American Educator, Summer 2010, 29-43.

Pollman, Mary Jo. 2010. Blocks and Beyond: Strengthening Early Math and Science Skills through Spatial Learning. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Block play, STEM, Maths
All ages
Teacher training