Although it doesn’t seem like a big part of learning, there are many benefits of block play. Children can learn so much by simply playing and experimenting with blocks.
What is Block Play?
Block play is an open-ended activity that encourages the children to be creative while also being an extremely valuable learning resource for children of all ages.
What are the Benefits of Block Play?
I agree with Kevin Zoromski, of Michigan State University that “Playing with blocks is one of the most satisfying and fun ways to interact with your child while teaching important skills to enhance their language, social, emotional, cognitive and motor development.”
Below I have broken down some of the things that children learn by experimenting with block play.
As children experiment with block play they come across various obstacles, or problems. This can be either deliberately (how can I build a tower as big as me without it falling over) or by natural consequences of their play. If they are trying to stack large blocks on top of a small block it may tip over, they problem solve and switch them around putting the large block on the bottom.
There is no right or wrong way to play with blocks which is great for children to use their imagination. They can use them to just build a tower to knock down or they can create a car garage and ramp for the cars. They can build a barn for the animals or a path way for them to walk along. There are endless ideas for creating in block play.
Children are able to use block play to express themselves. This can be specifically true to children who are non-verbal or who do not speak the same language. Block play allows them to demonstrate everything they are learning through using and experimenting with the blocks.
Children can learn so many early math skills through block play. They learn about shapes, sizes, counting, sorting, and patterns.
Communication and Literacy
While children play with blocks with others they need to communicate. They learn to ask for some blocks, or to ask someone not to knock down their tower. Children learn the names of the shaped blocks. Even when children play by themselves, if you pay attention you will see that they talk out loud narrating their story.
Because block play is an open-ended activity they can get create and add other materials to the play. Add in some animals, cars, small figurines, or even just another type of building blocks. You could use the blocks with play dough or as paint stampers. If you put out the materials the children will start creating new things.
Science is all around us every day. Even if it is not pointed out, or labelled, children are still learning about it. They learn about gravity as the blocks fall to the ground. They learn about balance and leverage as they create a teeter-totter using some large blocks.
In block play children have their own ideas and can take risks. They get that sense of accomplishment when they are able to finally stack the tower 10 blocks tall rather than the 5 they were able to stack before. They are able to feel proud of themselves with no external praise.
Social and Emotional Growth.
As children work together through block play they need to communicate, whether it’s verbal or non-verbal. They learn about working together, sharing the blocks, and taking turns. They also learn about empathy when they smash someone’s tower down and then the other child smashes their tower down.
Children develop their fine motor skills as they manipulate, or press together the small blocks. They gain gross motor skills as they reach up high to stack another block onto the top tower. While stepping from one block to the next they develop their balance and coordination. They build up their muscles as they carry the box of blocks from the shelf to the play space.
What is block play in the early years?
Block play looks quite different when looked at based on ages in the infant toddler years. it is quite basic and focuses on sensory and developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
Benefit of Block Play for Babies
Block play for babies is mostly sensory related. What does it sound like when they bang it on the floor, or another toy? How does the block feel in their hands? What does it feel like when they chew on it, how does it taste? What happens when they throw it across the room?
Rubber or silicone type blocks are great for babies as they are not hard if they bang themselves with it or if another child throws one. They also double as a chew toy.
To offer expand on simple block play for babies try offering a basket or box for them to put the blocks in and take them out. This helps to develop the skill of grasping and controlled releasing. Filling and dumping is a developmental skill that all children go through and it also is the under lying skill for cleaning up after they are done playing.
Why are Blocks Good for Toddlers?
As babies turn to toddlers, the block play advances. They start experimenting with stacking one block on top of another or lining the blocks up in a row and just to knock it all down and start again. Because block play is so open-ended toddlers can explore them in any way and still benefit developmentally from them.
They learn some basic yet extremely important skills like hand-eye coordination, patience, and focused concentration. Manipulating the blocks builds the muscles in their hands and fingers that they will one day need to hold a pencil to write.
What are the Stages of Block Play?
As children develop, so does their block play. It does not matter at what age the child is first exposed to blocks they still go through the same stages (except stage one). However, if they are older when being introduced to blocks the child may go through the stages faster, and skip the first stage, than children who were introduced to blocks as babies.
Harriet Johnson wrote a book in 1933 called “The Art of Block Building”. In this book she describes the different stages children go through.
The child carries the blocks around from space to space. Or putting used for filling and dumping from a basket/ box/ bag. They may be carried in a bag or just in their hands. The blocks are not used for building. This is your typical sensory stage. Children explore the blocks using their senses – sight, touch, taste, scent, and sound.
The first step towards building is stacking. They stack them up (vertical) or in a line (horizontal). This stage has a lot of repetition.
They learn to bridge two pieces by placing a third piece across the top. As they experiment in this stage they will learn that having two pieces similar in size is easier than trying to bridge a tall piece and a short piece.
This stage occurs once the child has been using the blocks on a regular basis and has a basic understanding of spatial orientation. The enclosures usually start with four blocks (making square/ rectangle) and then advance to other shapes and larger enclosures.
5. Patterns and Symmetry
As children age and develop, so does their imagination. This stage they become more intentional with their building, i.e. which blocks they use and where they go. They use pattern and symmetry to create a more elaborate structure. With these advanced buildings they also require balance. This requires the child to move slowly and have patience, being careful not to knock it down.
6. Early Representation
The structures are now being named and designed accordingly. Before this stage structures may have been named although they did not match the function of the building. For example if a child built a barn it would be similar in shape to a regular barn. Before this stage they may have built a tower straight up and called it a barn. Dramatic play is often showing up in their play. They may start using other materials to include in their play. They have mastered the basic skills for block play.
7. Later Representation
The last stage the structures are representing actual buildings that the children are familiar with. Either from their life or from stories. The designs become more intricate and they are adding in small details. They use other materials to extend their play. For example they may create individual spaces in the barn for each animal and create doors for them to get in and out.
How do you improve block play?
Asking questions and making comments can help increase your child’s development and their excitement towards learning. If the child is still young, to help with their language development, you can make comments and put names to what they are doing.
You can say things like “You have a blue square, I have a red square.” Or “Your tower is tall, mine is small.” As they get older you can turn those comments into questions.
As a parent/ caregiver you can alter your questions and comments depending on your child’s developmental level.
Asking a 1.5 year old how many blocks until the tower falls is (most cases) above their developmental level. But counting out loud how many blocks they are stacking is much more appropriate.
When you are talking with your child and asking questions be sure to not “quiz” your child. This means do not keep asking question after question after question. And if they do not answer its time to stop and do not keep asking the same question hoping they will answer. It takes all the fun out of learning and could create a negative connection to that activtity.
“I don’t want to play blocks because every time I do mom/dad/etc just starts quizzing me.” I have seen this happen with a daycare child. Their parent was so focused on their 2 year old knowing all of their colours and shapes that she would just stop talking completely when he started asking questions. Or she would change activities to try and make it stop.
It was quite obvious though her non-verbal communication that she was not enjoying it. Learning is supposed to be fun for them. When children are young is when their view on learning is started. Do they view learning as fun or is it a “chore”?
Here are some questions that you can casually bring up while you are playing.
- Can you show me a square block? round block?
- What shape is your favourite?
- Can you build a tower with only squares? Rectangles? Cylinders?
- What shape is your roof?
- Which block is bigger? Which block is smaller?
- Can you build a small tower? Big tower?
- If you put two squares together is it bigger, smaller or the same size as the rectangle?
- How many squares are in your tower?
- How many more blocks before it falls over?
- Count the blocks as they stack
- Can you make a tower using only one shape?
- How many green blocks? Yellow blocks? etc
- Can you clean up all the red blocks first?
- Do you think you could make a train using only the rectangle blocks?
- Can you line up the blocks biggest to smallest? Vice versa?
- Which colour comes next?
- Can you create a pattern using these blocks (start with 2 colours, advancing to using multiple shapes and colours)
- Can you copy my pattern?
- How big is your tower going to be?
- Label sizes (big, small, medium, shortest, tallest etc.)
Keep It Positive
Try to refrain from saying “No” when interacting with your child. If you ask where the circle is and they pick up a triangle try not to respond with “No, that’s not a circle”.
Try to correct them while keeping it positive “Wow, you found a triangle, here is a circle” as you pick up a circle. By removing the “No” from the scenario they aren’t failing and instead you are helping to build their confidence.
Very often when children are continuously ‘quizzed’ and they are told they are incorrect every time they get it wrong it can hurt their confidence and some children will actually stop answering out of fear of getting it wrong.
Emphasize The Correct Word
Child picks up a blue block and says “Red”, you respond with “You’ve got a BLUE block.” You can then either point to or pick up a red block and tell them “Here is a RED block.”
Make sure to talk in simple but full sentences to help build their vocabulary as well as language skills. It also helps them to pick up on the word you are correcting.
If you start rambling on about how they differ in colour, or shape, the corrected word gets lost.
Block Play Alternatives
Not everyone has blocks in their house and that’s okay. You can still provide some of the benefits of block play by using things in your house.
There are so many things you can stack and build with right out of the recycle bin. For example, cereal boxes, pasta boxes, plastic berry boxes, any container with a lid.
The pantry has just as many opportunities. For example, cans (big, small), cereal boxes, and anything else that would stack.
In most kitchens you will find plastic, or metal, food containers. I’m sure you could find glass as well but I would not recommend using those for obvious reasons. The food containers can be square, rectangle and sometimes round, thus they are perfect for building with.
Block Play Complexity Increases with Child
Such a simple “toy” yet there are so many benefits of block play. And they can be used for many years.
As children continue to grow and develop, the complexity of block building also increases. They can learn things such as mapping, advanced patterns, fractions, addition/ subtraction, estimating, and early engineering skills.