Block play: Classroom essentials
Why blocks? Perhaps because no other single classroom tool provides
as much support for social, literacy, physical science, language,
art, mathematical, muscle, or problem-solving skill development.
Consider these results of block play:
Jena accurately compares sizes, shapes, and numbers.
Zena describes how she matched the shelf template with block
Benny and Zach argue and solve the problem of which tower is
taller—without a teacher’s input.
Shakela and Manny draw a picture of a bridge and then build
Paula and Seth chart the weights of different sizes and numbers
Bill and LaTonya push toy trucks up an inclined plane and watch
the trucks roll down again.
Liz and Luis clap (and ask for a picture to be taken) when
they finally achieve symmetry in their barn construction.
Too often, early childhood teachers ignore the potential for
learning and cooperative play that blocks offer. Instead of pushing
a tiny collection of mismatched wood cubes to a back corner
(or closet bin), join the legions of experienced teachers who
choose blocks as the tool they can’t teach without.
Encouraging block play
Block play is a primary tool for math skill development. That
would make the purchase and use of blocks worthwhile in itself.
But the value of blocks goes far beyond math and number skills.
Consider this summary of developmental hallmarks:
and science skills: space, shape, comparisons, size, order,
stability, problem solving, experimentation, number, counting,
diversity, patterns, classification, symmetry, interdependence,
estimates, fractions, weight, balance, operations, negative space,
correspondence, seriation, gravity, and mapping
and literacy skills: labeling, vocabulary, signs, planning,
making comparisons, directionality, interpreting pictures, making
up stories, rhyming, sequence, order, representation, and symbols
skills: fine motor control, coordination, visual perception,
large motor control, balance, spatial orientation, moving in
space, body awareness, hand-eye coordination, sensory exploration,
and integrating left and right sides of the body to move as one
and emotional skills: making choices, autonomy, initiative,
cooperation, leadership, problem recognition, risk taking, creativity,
problem solving, responsibility, appreciation, negotiation, equality,
respect, associations, interdependence, discovery, self-expression,
trial and error, role play, symbolic representation, and divergent
Ages and stages
Rapid growth and development in early childhood make open-ended
toys essential. Blocks fill the bill by being infinitely flexible
and a great learning tool for children from toddlerhood through
school age. As you observe children’s interests and skills
change, modify the block and construction materials to include
a greater variety of block styles.
Children as young as toddlers can become involved in block play.
It helps them increase large muscle skills (crawling, pulling
up to stand, and walking independently) and small muscle skills
(carrying an object with two hands, using a pincer grip, and
manipulating objects). These skills enable children to explore
size, texture, weight, and color.
Health and safety considerations are paramount with toddler block
play. They continue to mouth objects as part of discovery, their
mobility isn’t yet fluid, and sharing is difficult.
Following standard safety guidelines can help minimize accidents
when toddlers play with blocks and other construction toys.
Make sure all materials are smooth, splinter-free, nonflammable,
nontoxic, and washable.
Routinely wash and sanitize toddler playthings.
Offer blocks that are larger than 1-inch square and can’t
fit into a toddler’s mouth.
Make sure there aren’t any small pieces that can become
detached and create a choking hazard.
Avoid strings and ribbons that can entangle or choke the toddler.
Some suggestions for block and construction toys for toddlers:
stacking blocks: These cloth-covered foam cubes are inexpensive,
colorful, and easy for toddlers to carry. The standard size is
about 4-inches square. Jumbo-sized blocks are also available.
blocks: Each side of these foam cubes is covered with
a different texture to stimulate sensory exploration.
cups: These colorful vinyl cups usually come in sets
of 10. Toddlers can stack them to make towers or nest them one
inside the other to explore size and gradation.
rings: Colored plastic rings in graduated sizes fit
over a form. Toddlers can explore shapes—and the hole in
the center of each ring.
unit blocks: These dense-foam blocks are built in the same
mathematical proportion as wooden unit blocks but are lightweight
for easy portability. Mouthing and teething toddlers will leave
permanent bite marks!
Duplo® bricks: These large bricks are colorful and easy for
toddlers to grasp, stack, and pull apart.
bricks: These blocks are shaped and printed to look
like bricks. They are large, lightweight, easy to stack, and
crush resistant. You can make your own with cardboard milk cartons
or detergent boxes. Just empty the container, fill it with crushed
paper or packing polystyrene, fold into a rectangle, and tape
shut. Cover the box with colored, adhesive-backed plastic.
Accessories for toddler block play include the following:
push toys like shopping baskets and wheelbarrows,
baskets to facilitate gathering and dumping activities, and
rubber, plastic, or wooden human and animals figures.
Most preschool children have some experience with a variety of
blocks and construction toys. Depending on the range of experience,
some children may still need to experiment with simple enclosures
and bridges, while others are eager to explore the ways blocks
can symbolize other things. These developmental differences
make it important to help children develop respect for another’s
work, to build cooperative relationships, and to allow space
and time for experimentation and knowledge building.
Consider making block play available both indoors and on the
playground. Each offers unique opportunities for creative experimentation,
material variety, social responsibility, and problem solving.
Outdoor construction play invites the use of unusual building
materials like tires, crates, rocks, logs, sticks, and bricks
that aren’t easily negotiated indoors.
Large hollow blocks offer preschoolers and older children a unique
opportunity for cooperative building experiences. Because the
blocks are large and heavy, most require at least two children
to work together—negotiating, evaluating, and agreeing—to
construct the desired structure. Children are able to make child-sized
buildings—a perfect setting for creative dramatic play.
Hollow blocks, like unit blocks, are built in mathematical proportion.
The square is 5 1/2 inches by 11 inches by 11 inches. There
is a half square, double square, and half double square. Typical
sets (about 20 blocks) of hollow blocks include ramps as well
as long and short boards.
Preschool block accessories include scarves, containers, and
signs as well as other types of construction materials like Lego® bricks,
stacking cubes, and Magnet Blocks®. See the lists on Page
33 for more ideas.
Kindergarten and school-age children
Blocks and other construction materials are valuable tools in
traditional elementary school classrooms because they foster
increasingly refined skills, including the ability to use symbols
Children in primary grades have greater mental energy and acuity
than younger children. They can delay immediate gratification,
negotiate verbally, collaborate, sustain activity and attention,
solve problems, recognize mistakes, use logic, and understand
that another child may have a different point of view. These
skills change the nature of block and construction play, making
it better planned and more symbolic.
Primary grade teachers, under pressure to teach to standardized
tests, too often forsake the opportunity to make blocks part
of both curriculum-generated play and recreational play for their
classes. Block play can be a productive instructional strategy
(Wellhousen and Kieff 2001). It invites children to engage in
directed investigations, symbolic constructions and models, language,
mathematics, and community explorations of big ideas like estimations,
balance, and symmetry.
Choose blocks and other building materials according to the skills,
interests, and experiences of the children in the group. Remember,
some may still be inexperienced builders who will need to build
skills stage by stage. Most children, however, will be ready
to build large, complex, representational structures that will
require large numbers of unit and hollow blocks and adequate
building and storage space.
Block accessories like people sets (with diverse ethnicities,
ages, and family structures), signs (and the tools to make them),
and vehicles will encourage more complex play and learning.
Include other construction materials like large sets of Lego
bricks and accessories (people, trees, and vehicles), architectural
blocks (with spires, domes, and arches), K’Nex® (with
rods, connectors, and pulleys), and pipe construction sets. These
materials can broaden and enrich learning challenges in problem
solving, design and representation, and collaboration.
Typically, early childhood block play focuses on unit blocks.
These blocks, like the large hollow blocks described earlier,
were developed in the early years of the last century by Caroline
Pratt, an innovative progressive educator in New York.
Unit blocks then—and now—are a flexible and adaptable
material that establishes a base line for early childhood education.
Pratt developed an authentic teaching tool—one that encourages
children to think about and then represent their experiences.
This authenticity is the foundation for much of the learning-through-play
philosophy of early care and education today.
are hard wood (usually maple) shapes, sanded smooth, and unembellished.
They are cut to specific mathematical proportions. The base block
measures 5 1/2 -inches
long, 3 3/4 -inches
wide, and 1 3/8 -inches
thick. A half unit is exactly one-half the length of the unit,
and a quadruple is exactly four times the length of a unit. Other
blocks in the set—triangles,
pillars, columns, and arches—are cut in proportion and
are designed to stack evenly.
Unit blocks are versatile, offer endless opportunities for exploration
and experimentation, and support play as a child’s skills
and creativity develop. Harriet Johnson, a colleague of Pratt,
described the stages of block building in a classic book on the
topic. In doing so, she offers teachers an essential tool for
observing a child’s cognitive, motor, and social growth
All children move through specific stages of block play—even
older children who have no experience with blocks. Keep these
stages in mind as you provide materials and design experiences
1. Younger children carry blocks but don’t use them for
construction. Older children often skip this stage and instead
examine the block’s surfaces and textures with their eyes
In this stage, we see the familiar gather-and-dump activities
of toddlerhood. As they gather blocks, these young learners are
gaining hands-on, sensory information on math concepts like more,
less, few, many, and heavy. They are learning about texture and
balance while refining their large and small motor skills.
2. Children make rows and stacks of blocks. Usually children
use similarly shaped and sized blocks for these constructions
and may cover the floor with long snakes of blocks. Early block
stacks are irregular and threaten to topple as each new block
is added. With developing dexterity, the stacks become straighter
Experimenting with stacks and towers is repetitious. Most children
need to practice a task over and over to refine skills and reinforce
confidence. Eventually rows and stacks reflect a child’s
strides in imagination and construction skills.
3. Children make bridges by using two blocks to support a third.
This stage reflects a child’s ability to solve a complex
mathematical problem that involves spatial relationships. For
example, how far apart do two support blocks have to be to support
a third? Experimentation, perseverance, observation, and access
to a variety of block sizes eventually lead to elaborate bridge-on-top-of-bridge
4. Children use blocks to enclose a space. Enclosing a space,
like building a bridge, presents early technical challenges to
young builders. Usually early enclosures are skewed—blocks
aren’t parallel or square to each other.
Experimentation and practice lead to eventual success in making
enclosures. And once successful, children repeat and refine the
process. They may play with embellishments like building a series
of joined enclosures, changing the shapes and sizes of the enclosures,
creating circular enclosures, or developing patterns of enclosures.
5. Children become more imaginative in construction projects
and construct balanced and decorative patterns. They use more
blocks, create elaborate designs, and begin to explore symmetry.
In this stage, children are not likely to name their structures.
They are building for the sake of building, and not for dramatic
play. Young builders are refining their skills, strengthening
their understanding of spatial relationships, and enjoying their
own creative impulses.
6. Children realistically name their structures—a barn,
horse corral, skyscraper, or spaceship, for example.
In this stage, children rely on access to a large number of blocks
in a variety of shapes. They repeat earlier stages—building
bridges and enclosures—with deliberate purpose. Their block
play is artistic. The blocks are the medium they use to represent
structures in their experience—stairs, towers, and gardens.
With continued access to blocks and time to experiment, children
begin to reflect their understanding of symbols. They use blocks
to represent objects in the real world and often interweave block
play with dramatic play. Children may announce their building
plan before taking the first blocks from the shelf, and assign
roles to each cooperative builder.