The Importance of Blocks
By Jennifer Winters, Assistant Director
Parents and teachers alike understand that young children learn best by making their own discoveries and acting on their own ideas. But learning something well also requires plenty of time and space and appropriate materials that meet children on their own terms. Because young children are more physical than verbal, blocks provide an excellent open-ended medium for communicating and playing out their ideas and for developing cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically.
Blocks challenge and develop a child’s cognitive processes, particularly mathematical, scientific, and language skills. Manipulating the specific shapes to build roads, bridges, and enclosures requires estimating, measuring, and gauging spatial relationships (inside, beside, together, on top, over, under). Increasingly more elaborate structures call on the scientific principals of gravity, stability, and balance. Inclined planes engage children in trial and error. Questions such as “What would happen if…?” stretch children’s critical thinking. Telling stories about the buildings, naming them, make up signs, and relating ideas and questions to peers and teachers strengthen children’s language skills.
Much of this development is evident in the activity of Manuel as he constructed a series of ramps across the room: It started out rather simply with one large rectangular board and two large cylinders. Manuel used those blocks to construct an inclined plane and quickly remarked, “This will make my cars go fast!” The teacher sitting nearby replied, “Yes, they do go fast. I wonder what would happen if you added one more board to the other side.” Manuel jumped up and ran to get another board and two more cylinders. He carefully placed the cylinders next to the existing cylinders and the board next to the existing board. He started to experiment, repeatedly pushing the car up and watching it come down. Then he saw a way to extend the pattern. Measuring and placing each block in a specific order, he added boards and cylinders until they extended the length of the room. After he completed the pattern, Manuel used the structure for a significant amount of time, testing his ideas with excitement and satisfaction.
Blocks also contribute in many ways to children’s social and emotional development. The boost in children’s self-confidence as they complete their structures is evident in their smiles and body language. Cooperating, taking initiative, and respecting the work of others also come into play, as when two or more children work together on a common building:
Ariella was constructing with half-circle blocks when her friend Sima-Ana arrived in the block area. Ariella quickly invited her to join in, and Sima-Ana readily accepted. “I’m building swimming pools,” Ariella stated. Sima-Ana observed the scene, smiled at her friend and then began to follow Ariella’s lead in connecting the half-circle blocks. Sima-Ana then picked up some small pieces of fabric and suggested that they place one under each circle or pool. Areilla smiled and nodded, and the girls placed the fabric carefully under each pool. The play continued for the better part of an hour as the two friends built an elaborate system of pools.
Young children learn primarily through movement, so of course blocks also promote physical development. Children must reach and stretch to get and place the blocks. They walk and run alongside ramp structures that may stretch across the room. Manipulating the blocks and creating structures, they sharpen hand-eye coordination and visual perception. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright wrote about the influence of childhood experiences with Froebel Blocks on him:
The smooth, shapely maple blocks with which to build, the sense of which never afterwards left the fingers: so form became feeling. The physical affinity for blocks came through in the play of Seongmin:
Watching Seongmin build an extensive series of intricate vertical structures was like watching a painter or a sculptor create a masterpiece. He had an idea, and through careful balancing and keen hand manipulation he built his first creation. Then he stood and motioned for the teacher, “Look at my rocket ship!” The teacher commented on the large size and how well the rocket ship balanced. Seongmin smiled and then proceeded to build several more rocket ships throughout the block area.
As wonderfully simple as they are, blocks involve the whole child—body, senses, emotions, cognitive processes, and social interaction. A more open-ended, flexible, and constructive medium could scarcely be imagined.
About Unit Blocks
Unit blocks were invented in 1913 by Caroline Pratt, founder of the City and Country School in New York City. The blocks are traditionally hardwood. They are multiples or fractions of the basic unit, a brick shaped block, twice as wide as it is thick. Children internalize mathematical concepts as they construct with the blocks. A typical set of blocks for school or home includes a good number of units, double units (longies), some half units, and some special shapes like semi-circles and pillars.
The blocks at Bing are supplied by Community Playthings, Chester, New York. (Address: 359 Gibson Hill Road, Chester, NY 10928-2321; Phone: 800-777-4244; Fax: 800-336-5948.) Parents can call for a catalog. A set of blocks can be shared by siblings and cousins and handed down for generations.