About ten or twelve years ago, an early years advisor told me there was a strong connection between block play and literacy. That seemed a little far-fetched. The only connection I could see was that both writing and block play require good hand-eye coordination and a certain amount of manual dexterity. However I began observing block play more closely. I noticed that children’s block play is often inspired by stories they have heard. A teacher in our local school observed: “I just told my Year Two class a fairy tale about a princess, knights and a dragon; now they are busy in the construction area building castles, knights and dragons.” After this, I started seeing numerous instances where children would go to the construction area after hearing a story and re-enact it with blocks.
My next realisation was really exciting. Writing is much more than a physical act of making marks on paper. Writing is a symbolic act! Whether someone is writing in English or Chinese, each of those squiggles on the paper represents a sound or an idea. Block play is also symbolic: when children construct with blocks they are representing ideas. Expressing ideas in concrete ways prepares children to symbolise ideas in abstract ways later. Think of block play as a language in which children weave elaborate narratives. It is a language in which boys in particular become amazingly fluent. The boy in this photo is Ian. He had rebuilt, in intricate detail, a map on the flyleaf of his favourite storybook. I asked Ian’s teacher Martha, “Could Ian have drawn that map with paper and pencil?” She replied that the pinnacle of Ian’s mark-making skills was drawing rainbows. Nothing more advanced than that. If Ian were not fluent in this language of blocks – if he did not have this medium in which to express his ideas – no one would have known that he had that map memorised!
I hope you are as excited by this as I am. It makes me realise how vital it is that we provide each child with a medium in which he or she feels at home. Then children can build their own strong foundation for future literacy.