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What is the Big Deal About Blocks?

“What is the big deal about blocks?” Melitsa Aliva asked me this question earlier this week. We were recording a podcast for her show, Raising Playful Tots ,  based in the UK.  Blocks  have been a longtime favorite of mine, and I have been advocating even more for block play as the pushy digital world steals more and more authentic experiences from the hands of our children. You may have heard about the study released on Tuesday by Common Sense Media, reporting that  “half (52%) of all 0- to 8-year-olds have access to a new mobile device, such as a smartphone, video iPod, or iPad/tablet”.  If only the same were true for blocks!

Blocks are as relevant as they have ever been – perhaps more now than ever – offering  a wide range of positive experiences for children of all ages. Socialization, creativity, problem solving, language development, cause and effect, math and science, motor development – these are all vital skills that are deeply enhanced through block play.

I’ve recently been hearing early childhood educators refer to their Smart Boards and iPads as being “hands on” tools. They are not. Knocking over a virtual tower is not the same kinesthetic experience as knocking down a real block tower. Touching a worm on a screen is not the same thing as holding a wiggling worm in your hand. Not even close. It worries me when early childhood professionals describe their teacher-directed Smart Board literacy lessons as “engaging students holistically.” They are not.

The most developmentally appropriate technology we have for preschoolers and kindergartners have been our tried and true technologies such as crayons, balls and blocks. Add nature, and you have all the materials you need. And as one preschool teacher once commented on this blog:

“I have always been against computers in early childhood classrooms and feel we need to fight to keep them out. Every argument I have heard for them is an argument I see against them. To ‘You can listen to bird calls on them’ , I say ‘go outside and listen to the birds’. To ‘There is a wonderful counting program kids can use to learn numbers and counting skills’, I say ‘Take your child outside and count acorns.’ Thanks for bringing this to our attention and I for one will never have a computer in my early childhood classroom.”

The other wonderful thing about blocks (and nature!) is that they will not be obsolete in a year or two. Invest in a good set of blocks and your child (and grandchildren) will play with them for years and years to come. Blocks are never the same toy twice – as children invent and reinvent each time they play. And as children grow, their block play evolves and becomes more elaborate. Add a few simple accessories – such as pine cones or ping-pong balls, and a whole new range of experiences will open up for the child.

For schools with tight budgets, blocks and professional development opportunities about the power of block play are sound investments. When I read about the school district in Auburn, Maine spending $200,000 on iPads for all their incoming kindergarten students, I was shocked and saddened. What will the children be missing in order to make the time and money available for this digital push? How quickly will those iPads become passe? How much support will the teachers receive?

For folks who think that bringing the digital world to younger and younger children is the key to 21st Century learning – there just isn’t evidence to bear that out. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics just upheld their long standing position for no screen-time for children under the age of two. Children are social and sensory learners – they learn better from interacting with actual people and playing with the world around them – than from screens.

High-tech employers such as Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion lab now actually ask potential employees how he or she played as a child. They look for folks who played with clocks and took them apart to see how they worked; people who built things; who had authentic, playful experiences and have become the creative problem-solvers and innovators that this company needs. You can read more about this in Dr. Stuart Brown’s wonderful book Play, How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul.  We can also look to Mitchel Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT’s Media Lab. He knows that traditional kindergarten classrooms provide the key experiences for creating and working collaboratively – so much so he has modeled his lab after a traditional kindergarten classroom. Furthermore, his playful programming language Scratch is used by 8 – 16 year olds. He did not design it for the early childhood world. And when using Scratch, these older children are creators rather than consumers of technology.

Blocks come a range of sizes and are made from a range of materials. For the youngest explorers, my favorite is the Mini Unit Block set designed by Community Playthings for one-year-olds and up. I use these blocks in my workshops, and adults love them as well. If space provides, a full set of unit blocks is wonderful for preschoolers and school age children. Hollow wooden blocks allow children to build structures large and strong enough to climb on and climb into. Excellent!

KEVA planks, which I’ve written about in the past, are also engaging for children of all ages – including adults. (See KEVA planks post below.) If you are a LEGO fan, and I know there are many of you out there, stick to the open-ended sets, such as the LEGO Creator kits which can be made into a range of things. Steer clear of the television and movie character sets, which can be limiting to the child’s creativity. (Even as I write this, my own sons are lobbying hard for some Star Wars LEGO sets for Christmas – so believe me, I know how hard this one is to follow!)

Really, the key here is playing with moveable parts and loose pieces. The simpler the toy, the more that will come from inside the child. Can your child take apart your iPhone to see how it works and use the pieces to create something new? It can’t happen that way. As she plays, is she learning how to ask her own questions, develop her own theories, and test them out? Is your son diligently creating something unique which builds on what he discovered yesterday and incorporates a friend’s new idea? Is your child learning to value her own ability to invent, create, innovate and entertain? These are questions that can help guide you as you make choices for the children in your life. I urge you to consider blocks.

Here are some great block resources:

The Block Book by Elizabeth Hirsh,ed.

Foundations of Block Play (video)

KEVA Planks

Block Play; Collage issue from January 2005 from Community Playthings


And here are some related blog posts:

Live Your Life

Radical Preschool

KEVA Planks – Creating Fun for Everyone

Victories Worth Celebrating!

A special thanks to teacher Laurel McConville and Mission Hill School, Roxbury MA for many of the pictures used in this blog post! And stay tuned for details about how and when you can hear the blocks podcat from Raising Playful Tots.







3 comments to What is the Big Deal About Blocks?

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