Block play builds more than STEM

Published on Tuesday, 16 November 2021
Last updated on Monday, 15 November 2021

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There’s more value in block play than simply helping young children learn basic principles of math and science, in fact it’s an incredible resource that, with educator support, allows children to explore ideas such as creativity, literacy and, social-emotional development.

This week we take a deep dive into scaffolding learning and the stages children move through as part of block play.

Alphabet blocks are believed to be one of the first educational toys designed specifically for children and their history as a learning tool dates back to the 17th century. A mainstay in early childhood, research on how children play with blocks started around the 1920s.

When children are playing with blocks they’re enhancing skills such as problem solving and self-expression, they’re gaining confidence in their own abilities and learning perseverance as they work to build their own creations.

While there are many benefits to block play, the mere presence of a block area is not enough to extend their full teaching potential. While many factors influence children’s experience with blocks, the most important component is the interest and support of the teacher.

Community Playthings published an article, The Role of the Teacher in Block, revealing insights from educators with block-building expertise; here are some key takeaways from their practice:

What can teachers do to generate an interest in block play in their classroom?

  • Once a teacher offers the time, the space, and the guidance, the learning can really happen.
  • The teacher needs to be fully present and to support the children’s thinking and ideas whey they’re block building.
  • Show genuine interest in the blocks and the children, get down to their level and ask them open-ended question or comment on the building.

When should a teacher insert themselves into the block play?

  • It is an art to be quiet and to observe.
  • You don’t want to disrupt their train of thought, but you also want to encourage the next level or stage by scaffolding their learning.
  • Occasionally insert yourself to ask a question, to redirect, or to clarify something. Helping children with the language they need to negotiate and collaborate, but not directing the play or inserting yourself into a problem.
  • Offer a small cue or prompt to the child to suggest creating things that are slightly above their ability.

How should a teacher respond to conflict in the area?

  • Step back for a few moments and try to let the children problem-solve the situation at first.
  • If you’re present in the block area you are observing how things are evolving and it makes your interaction or intervention more sensitive and appropriate to the child and the child’s needs.
  • If a child is going to knock down another child’s structure or throw a block it’s time to intervene.
  • It about knowing the children and knowing what they’re capable of.

How can the environment be set up to support block play?

  • Look at it through a child’s eyes and say, “What would pull me in? What would spark my interest?”
  • The larger the space the children have to interact with blocks open-endedly, the richer the experience will be.
  • Ideally have a space where children can leave things up overnight to honour the investment in their work.
  • Allow time for children to create.

What are some effective strategies for clean-up time?

  • Use digital cameras to take pictures of the children’s work, it can validate their effort and the result.
  • Use clean-up as a learning opportunity instead of just a chore.
  • Think of it as ‘un-building, which means just as the blocks are placed carefully during the building they also need to be carefully dismantled and blocks sorted into shapes. It helps children learn about organisation and shows respect for their work.

Block play was highlighted and studied by early educators, such as Froebel, Montessori, Hill, and Pratt. Their theories encouraging children to be given physical objects to play with as the basis for learning was considered revolutionary in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A colleague of Caroline Pratt, and preschool pioneer, Harriet Johnson, identified the seven stages of block play in her book The Art of Block Building. As children move through these stages, their cognitive development, motor skills, and social growth can be observed:

Stage one: Carrying

This begins with toddlers and it involves gathering, carrying and dumping blocks rather than using them for construction. This is also the age where they love to knock blocks down. In these activities children are gaining hands-on experiences and sensory information about concepts such as more, less, few, many, heavy, light and balance. Additionally, they are building their gross and fine motor skills as they bend, squat, grab and carry.

Stage two: Stacking.

Here’s where the building begins as children make rows with similarly shaped and sized blocks on the floor or attempt to stack the blocks vertically. As children practice, they begin to refine their skills and confidence, and begin to build straighter and more stable creations.

Stage three: Bridge building

Now children start to build bridges by using two blocks to support a third across the top (lintel). This requires spatial awareness and problem solving as children must calculate how far apart the two blocks must be to support the third. Skills like perseverance are important at this stage.

Stage four: Enclosures

This is usually around the age of four and involves children making enclosed areas with blocks; this may represent a house or a garage. This develops into strings of connected enclosures. Again, this requires spatial skills and problem solving as children experiment with modifying the shape and size of the enclosure or creating a type of pattern.

Stage five: Patterns and symmetry

Imaginative block building begins to emerge as blocks are used to construct more elaborate designs, integrate patterns, and experiment with balance and symmetry. Math and science skills are being developed and practiced during this stage. Supporting resources, such as animals and cars will begin to be added to their construction.

Stage six: Structures

Children start to create structures they are familiar with in their daily lives and they name them. It could be a zoo, an airport or a house, and could be used for dramatic play purposes.

Stage seven: Symbolic

Blocks are now used to represent things children know such as cities, farms or houses, and they’ll include more complex structures with technical, intricate and artistic details. This stage demonstrates their representational thinking, which is evidence of complex cognitive development. Creativity and planning skills are being developed as they build and expand their creations. If working with other children they may display more cooperative skills and group dramatic play.

References and further resources:

Community Playthings: Building stem skills (block play)

Froebel Trust: Froebel’s gifts and block play today

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