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
“Why then, in the name of school readiness, is block play marginalized, 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?
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
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
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.
Isn’t it time to put blocks back in the spotlight again?
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!
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.©
Rosanne Regan Hansel was most recently an Education Program Development
Specialist for the NJ Department of Education and is now a consultant for
3D Childhood. She is author of Creative Block Play: A Comprehensive Guide
to Learning through Building and a contributing author to Big Questions for
Young Minds: Extending Children’s Thinking (Strasser & Mufson Bresson,
2017). Rosanne holds a BS in Art Education from Penn State and an MS Ed in
Early Childhood Leadership from Bank Street College of Education. She was
formerly the Early Childhood Specialist for the National Science
Foundation’s Math Science Partnership at Rutgers University and an
administrator and teacher in a variety of early childhood and elementary
settings. Rosanne has written performing arts and approaches to learning
standards for preschool, co-authored the New Jersey Kindergarten
Guidelines, and currently facilitates professional development on the
kindergarten guidelines and early childhood science, math, art, creativity,