Foundations video

The value of block play

Blocks allow children’s imaginations to guide their play.

From this flows rich social and cognitive learning as well as confidence and independent thought. Because there is no correct use of blocks, there is no failure; each success encourages the next experiment.

Block play provides amazing opportunities to observe children, giving glimpses into their thinking. We can almost hear a child’s thoughts as we watch and listen. Children use the language of blocks to communicate ideas, building a firm foundation for future forms of self-expression, such as written language.

The foundation comes first!

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A child's world is full of discovery.

Hello fish!

Everything he sees and does will influence who that child becomes in later life. Because the process of discovery is the first step to creating. There is much we still do not understand about the way children learn, but what we do know, we can credit to the work of early educators like this woman.

Already in 1901, Caroline Pratt had become disillusioned with the structured approach to classroom learning at that time. She proposed a different model, an environment where play was the vehicle for discovery about the real world.

Today, Pratt is best known not for a theory, but for this: a simple piece of wood, five and a half inches long, two and three quarters wide, and one and three eighths thick. She called it the unit block.

The world for children is something new. They're just discovering things in different ways. We always think about blocks in terms of learning through our senses.

Often you can see them stroke them. So there's obviously a very sensual thing about wood for children too, that I don't see them do with other plastic bricks or Lego bricks.

Children are attracted to the blocks because of the beauty, because of the shape. Then they discover symmetry as they create balance, and then it's pleasing to them and they create their own kind of symmetry, not just side by side mirror symmetry. I've seen radial symmetry come out, the different patterns they develop.

It's really important for children to be able to act on their environment, and so many toys that children have now, not necessarily in a child care center, but at home, are so closed. Blocks can do anything and can be anything.

It's totally open ended. They can create and recreate whatever they want to do. There's no set thing they've got to do. There's no right or wrong.

[crosstalk 00:04:18] 

I was talking once to the President of Brio Toys, who makes these wonderful little train sets from Sweden, and he said, what a shame that in America every child knows exactly what Snow White looks like. We have so much canned the entertainment in this country, that there is very little left where children can bring their own ideas.

When they look at things on paper and they do things with pencils, the education is pushing them in a direction that makes them very configurative. It makes the learning rather static, and it rather sets things in concrete. In my view, it would be far more helpful for children to be involved in block play, than it would to sit them down and try and make them do reading and writing.

Not just because play is fun, but because they're going to be learning all sorts of things about sharing an experience, about being sensitive to other people while they use the blocks, talking about ideas surrounding the blocks, creating stories through the blocks.

It really does empower children to do things on their own, and the adults don't have to be there micromanaging everything, because the kids will really get into doing it on their own and find success on their own.

I think the self esteem that it gives children to actually be expert at something that doesn't have closely defined boundaries of being right or wrong, is enormously liberating for most young children and for their whole sort of creative spirit.

And the sense of achievement when they've done it, or when they can actually balance one of the longer blocks on two of the shorter ones, is amazing. And it's something that all children can achieve that, and therefore that sense of joy of, wow, I can do it, is quite wonderful.

[crosstalk 00:06:45] 

We would sometimes see children when they'd made a beautiful construction, celebrate it by dancing round it and making a little song and a rhythm. And that reminded us so much of ancient civilizations, have acted as a community. You build something and then you don't sit.

Children come into nursery and they have rich emotional lives at home, and some of them are feeling very vulnerable at different times. And I've noticed that children who are feeling vulnerable often go towards the block area because it is something that they can control.

Something that happened a few years ago in another school with a three year old girl, who was finding all sorts of ways in the nursery setting, of expressing her own anxieties about her family situation, and what she did with me one day: she made three vertical assemblages, and it was obvious as she was beginning to make it, that they would begin to look like three bears kind of situation. And she pointed to the little one and she said, "That's the little girl", and then the middle sized one, that's the mother.

I said, "Who's the bigger one?" And that's the Daddy, and I drew her attention to the fact and said, "You've actually put your Daddy a little bit far apart from you and your mummy, haven't you? Why is that?" And she said, "It's because my Daddy is away at the moment".

[crosstalk 00:08:30] 

I would challenge people to take a long second look at their blocks, and probably to add more blocks, realizing that it's such a valuable material that it could really form the core of your curriculum. Everything could be built around blocks.

Because you can do almost everything through block play. You've got mathematical development. You've got the design technology and being able to build blocks and knowing how things build.

They learn on a real visceral level, how things relate to each other and how things work together.

If you like the part whole relationships, that a unit is divided into two halves, into four quarters into eight eights. So however you want to build, your blocks will fit.

The minute you're involved in block play, you're getting involved in a bit of engineering. You're beginning to look at things like centers of gravity, how you can connect things. Free standing blocks are very challenging in that respect.

[crosstalk 00:10:09] 

I think there might be a bit of a barrier with the blocks because it is such a different medium, and it's so obviously architectural. For them, it's already in a quite an advanced language system, in which the different sizes and shapes and the different ways in which they can combine them. It's like having different words and the different combinations are new sentences.

We've seen this with children who may speak a different language, or children who don't have language, or children who maybe don't see. They will start feeling how the blocks are. And we'll start knowing from the way the blocks are configured, what it is that's going on, and how it is that they can participate in what's going on.

But then as the children get more skilled in their block play, it encourages language development as the children talk to each other and figure out what they're going to do and how they're going to use their structure.

We did introduce terms like prisms and wedges, so that they could explore that and broaden their vocabulary.

Blocks as a material present to children an opportunity to learn more than they can from most other classroom materials, because they can integrate a lot of math and reading and writing and social studies, in a way that they can't necessarily in using other materials.

What are our ultimate goals with children? We can teach them facts. We can give them a few skills, language and math and things like that. But the most important thing that they're going to learn in their preschool years is how to think.

But it's also terribly important for children to bounce their ideas against other peoples. For very young children, even toddlers and babies love to have other children around. And we've always talked a lot about the importance of parallel play, where two children may not interact very much, but they are sort of together with block play.

We see a lot of this, and often children will just echo what the other one is doing, and there'll be resonances of the same sort of interest. The other kind of play, and this is the sort which tends to be centered on, and is sometimes thought to be the most advanced sort of play, although I'm not sure that it is, if you value solitary play, it's cooperative play, where the children are having to negotiate with each other, having to find out what someone else's play agenda is.

Very egocentric three year old or a two and a half year old is sitting there and playing with blocks and sees a block they need over there, and it doesn't matter if it's part of somebody else's structure, they just grab it. And they're genuinely amazed when there's a protest at the other end of the block.

I think teachers should see this as a wonderful opportunity, because you almost have an abstract setting that you can involve yourselves in helping children figure out what to do about conflicts.

She wants the same block that I want, but I need my turn first, and how do I let her know that in an acceptable way.

[inaudible 00:14:00] 

It certainly helps them interact with other children. Quite often, if a group of children are working together, they build up the negotiation skills because they want that particular block.

Thank you so much.

We know from research that children who haven't received and felt given to other children who find it is difficult to give, because they haven't learned what a pleasure it is to be giving. And so when you're four years old, and you make a decision, well, yes, yes, I will let you knock down my tower, is actually a lovely feeling.

Research has shown that there are age linked developmental progressions in block instruction.

Usually in the first few weeks of children encountering blocks, they will do almost an imitating type plays.

Two year olds may just carry them around and actually be feeling blocks and having to look and sorting them out in there on the shelves. And that's not... And that is a learning process for those young children.

Then they just start to design their own little topics and projects and they follow it through. You get some children who will build enclosures for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks.

Children start to use blocks as symbols. So they'll pick up a block and say, "This is a car", or "This is a plate that I'm going to eat from". "This is a tin of baked beans".

A row will start becoming a road that they can drive on. Alright, so it becomes a symbolic act, in addition to being a construction act.

Four year olds will start building randomly, and then it reminds them of something, and then they'll name it. They'll do this in their drawing too. A five year old, on the other hand, is much more likely to plan. And in the back seat of the car on the way to the child care center in the morning, they'll announce to their mother that they're going to make an airport today and they're going to play with Billy, and Billy is going to come over, and they'll bring the ambulance in because the plane is going to crash.

That's not something they do when they first come in, not as toddlers. Even as young three year olds, they're not able to do that. But by the time a child is an older four or a five year old, instead of just pulling blocks off the shelf and messing around with them, they come in with a plan, with an idea about what they want to build. And then they do some problem solving about how they can get the building done.

This is a [inaudible 00:17:06] 

Raise your hand if you have an idea of something that should go in one of these buildings to make the building really work.

[inaudible 00:17:18]  that you can write your name on.

They have computers at the bowling alley where you can write your name.

When I think about the group in terms of their growth over the year, it is phenomenal. And it's really moved to a place where kids are doing more reality building, and therefore are learning about the real world through them.

Eventually they will build in order to use the blocks. So it's not just the joy of being able to create something, but they will create it and then use it. So they will build an airplane and then pretend that they're flying off, I don't know, on holiday, or wherever.

[crosstalk 00:18:12] 

What I've noticed is a teacher, is that kids who haven't had very much experience with blocks will sort of go through a mini developmental progression. So if you have a five year old who hasn't had any time actually doing any kind of building and especially not with blocks, she may mess around with them a little bit, before she actually gets to, "I have a plan and I'm going to make something with them".

Where can you go? Emily [inaudible 00:18:46]  Where can you go to get food?

There were two different examples that I can think about that bear on this: one was a block building pair. We're building a pizza store, they called it a pizza parlor. And I said, "When people go into a pizza parlor, how do they know what pizzas they can get?" They said, "The person who makes the pizzas tells them", but that's not actually the way that it happens.

So we went downstairs to a neighborhood pizza parlor. They saw there that there's a very big sign that hangs above the ovens, where it lists the pizzas and lists the prices. The kids actually went with clipboards and paper so they could do drawing and writing.

In other words, they could do recordings so that they can come back and reproduce it in their block building. The buildings have to be representational in the sense that they really have to function in the way that real buildings function in children's lives.

And over the course of the year, I've seen a growth, and the kids are making purposeful buildings. For instance, there was one week where someone built a gym and they had the person who works behind the counter and take your membership card. They made membership cards, and then other kids would come to the gym and check into the gym and use the different equipment that they had made in the gym. So dramatic play becomes a big part of the block area.

For some kids, it happens naturally. For others, I needed to structure it a bit more. And how I did that was saying that one day we're going to visit each other's buildings. So in the partners, one child should stay at the building, the other child should go and visit other buildings. And then they took turns.

There's a couple of different things that teachers can do to encourage using blocks. One of the most important things I think is their presence in the block area. By their physical presence, they're saying this is an important area of the classroom. I want you over here. I want to be here with you.

The adult isn't setting the agenda, but is simply providing a focus. You know, that they might simply want to come in to say good morning or whatever, and you may call good morning to them, and that will show them what I mean.

Adults are very important to children, because they're going to set the blocks up so that they're beautifully presented, so that they're easy to use. So the children have access to them, because if you have a disorganized block area, then the block play will be disorganized and very poor quality.

You have to think about yourself as a teacher, arranging the environment so kids have access to blocks and can serve whatever purposes that they are interested in pursuing.

If the teacher doesn't know how to use the blocks, then the children probably aren't going to use them either.

In my classroom, the block area takes up more than a third of the space. Almost a half the space in the classroom. Certainly more than a third of the space, which is a statement that to me or to anybody who looks at it, that somehow that's very important.

How much we underestimate young children, I think our nursery has grown over the last few years, but it's particularly in the block area where a really deep level learning can take place, when children's experiences are protected, when they're given the time to really develop their understanding of key concepts. I think time is one of the essential things.

15 minutes isn't going to do it. It's not even worth taking it off the shelf then. So you find in... I see this most often in public school kindergartens or half day preschools, where your free play time is very limited. Blocks are used less by the children because they can't even get going before it's time to clean it up again.

That's my favorite.

The other thing that teachers can do and often don't understand that they can do, is bring in lots of accessories.

The trouble is keeping the accessories relevant to the block play, and making sure that the accessories don't replace the blocks as the primary focus of the play.

Let them have a lot of experiences with the blocks, then very gradually add accessories.

Seeing what it is they're playing, and then finding the accessories that is going to move that play onto a higher level for the children.

Another thing that I love when adults do is, when the adults simply get in there and go like this, and simply observe with great interest. Suddenly you see the child say, "Hey, my teacher's looking at me. My teacher thinks this is interesting", and suddenly the block play becomes more elaborate, the child starts describing what they're doing, the words come.

I sometimes think three quarters of quality teaching and working with children is about being a good observer.

Literally just to stand back and see what the children are doing, who isn't good at negotiating, who is the leader.

Whether the child is able to choose what they're thinking about, what experiences they've had, what connections they're making between their own experiences and what's presented to them. How they represent their own experiences.

In an ideal world, I think it would be wonderful if particularly precious constructions could be left until the next day. But if they can't be, then it can be useful to take a photograph which can be instantly developed, so that when the children come in the next day, everybody can have a get at reconstructing, and getting back to where they were, and carry on, or to do a sketch. Children really appreciate it if adults will do a sketch, and very often they begin to want to do sketches themselves.

So there are a number of different ways of entering into the play that the children are doing and documenting what they're doing when they're playing.

[crosstalk 00:26:40] Yeah, no, that was a million of them.

Another reason adults shy away from block play, is it's a drag to clean it up, and kids will avoid cleaning it up. And there are some little strategies people can do there to make it easier. One, again, back to the final product business. One reason children don't like to clean up their blocks is because they've worked on this wonderful structure and now it's gone. So I think it helps a lot if the teacher goes over there and really acknowledges what the child has done.

I often tell people, if I had a very limited budget and was starting my own child care program or preschool program, I would spend most of my money on a good set of unit blocks; because everything else you can improvise, but unit blocks have such intense value, they touch every area of the curriculum, every area of child development.

Famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright credit their own early experience with building blocks with shaping their orientation towards the world, their decision to become, and his decision to become an architect. Actually, it may have been my own experience playing with blocks in my grandfather's shop that influenced how I thought about how I learn, how others learn and triggered my interest in studying blocks as I became an adult.

I'm just reminded of a wonderful scene that I saw.

I once saw two boys-

A group of children last year.

A refugee child, five autistic children.

One child had built a pumpkin patch.

And other kids were saying, "You know, this isn't fair because you have so many people and we need more for our school".

And for almost the entire session, they used all of the blocks.

They have their own conversation, and then they get on with the job.

But we're pretty sure she was counting and ordering in her own language.

It became the kind of experience that spoke to and empowered this child to represent the experience through block play.

The power to create and recreate the world is given to every human being at birth. How we use that gift depends in part on how it was developed when we were young. Blocks are the means of creation. They are the words we need to tell the story of the world. Without them, our hands would be empty.

Good bye fish!
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