Block play: Classroom essentials
Managing the block area
A chaotic free-for-all in the block area is not only dangerous but also less
likely to lead to constructive play and learning experiences. Keep children
safe and maintain classroom order by managing and maintaining the block area.
Keep materials in good order, make them accessible to children, and enforce
As you set up block and construction play areas for preschool
and school-age builders, use these guidelines:
low, open shelves to store blocks, especially unit blocks.
Cut out and laminate a colored template of each unit block
shape and affix it to the shelf to assist children in locating
and replacing blocks. If a child with a visual impairment
is in the group, make the template out of sandpaper so that
the texture helps guide the child. Place large heavy blocks
on the lower shelves to help stabilize the storage unit.
space on the shelf for accessories and additional props. Note:
Storage bins or deep boxes do not encourage constructive play.
Having to dig through the jumble of blocks is often so daunting
that children move to a different activity.
the block center in an area of the room that gets little traffic.
Locating it near the writing and dramatic play centers will
encourage cross play, material use, and deeper investigations.
An 8-foot-by-10-foot space is suitable for four to six children
a low-napped rug to muffle noise, define the boundary, and
provide a comfortable surface for floor play.
smaller construction blocks and bricks in clear plastic containers.
Label the containers and store them on low shelves to make
them accessible to children.
Number of blocks
Determining a block-to-child ratio will depend on the children’s
ages and their experience with building. Experienced teachers
suggest limiting unit block construction to four to six children
at a time. A good rule of thumb is 200 unit blocks for a group
of 3-year-olds, 300 for 4-year-olds, and 400 to 600 for kindergarteners
and school-age children.
sell construction materials in sets. Sometimes the packaging
gives guidance on amounts to buy. Buy enough to encourage cooperative
play and avoid squabbles about ownership.
best to buy large quantities of the best, most open-ended materials
like Lego® bricks, wooden train sets, and Unifix® cubes.
Experience has shown that buying a variety of small sets of
materials won’t sustain children’s interest or
hold up under hard classroom use.
Props and accessories can turn an ordinary block area into a
factory of imaginative, skillful construction. Props change
the nature of block play from precision mathematical and muscle
building routines into imaginative play with families, animals,
occupations, and roles. Prop suggestions include the following:
tools including paper, pencils, tape, markers, index cards,
blank books, and clipboards;
plastic, and wooden human and animal figures;
cylinders and sheets (for chimneys, roofs, roads, and smokestacks);
and vinyl floor samples;
transportation vehicles like trucks, trains, and cars;
pictures of buildings, bridges, cities, farms, and factories.
Guiding block play
Children often need a facilitator in their play experiences.
The facilitator is a model, an adult who can make play safe,
calm frustrations, smooth hurdles, monitor negotiations, encourage
problem solving, ask questions, and introduce new ways of learning.
Some tips for facilitating block play:
on the process, not the product. Avoid asking “What
is it?” and instead ask open-ended questions that start “Why
do you think…?” or “How does…?”
to children’s conversations and acknowledge and support
turn mistakes into constructive learning. If the tower falls
down, help children analyze why the construction didn’t
both quiet, introspective block play and more vigorous play
that might happen outside.
children seem uninterested in block play, go to the center
yourself. Choose a couple of blocks and start stacking. Soon
children will join you. Ask questions that spark curiosity
and interest. As the children become increasingly engaged,
distance yourself slowly, communicating your trust in their
ability to proceed without you.
interest-grabbing props and accessories like traffic signs,
architectural renderings, and pictures of cityscapes.
duplicates of popular props.
children adequate time for planning and building (as much as
45 minutes for experienced builders).
advance warning of clean-up time so children can plan how to
end their play. Allow adequate time for children to put blocks
Help make clean-up time as fun and instructive as the rest of
block play. Some tips:
in advance whether everyone will pick up blocks or just the
children playing with them.
a system that encourages children to leave a project standing
for more than one day.
fun and cooperative techniques for making cleanup quick: forming
an assembly line, gathering blocks in a basket or wheeled toy
for moving to the shelf area, and calling out shapes. Make
a game of cleanup by making shape or number cards that children
can draw out of a stack. The drawn card dictates how many or
what kind of block to gather and store.
More materials for construction
Beyond unit blocks, many commercial materials, recycled or repurposed
objects, and discarded construction items enhance block play.
Ask for donations of materials, scour garage sales and resale
shops, and shop carefully to stock your supplies.
list is intended to spark ideas.
and PVC pipes and fittings
and tree stumps
measures and rulers
and tile scraps
metal, and plastic tubes
sheets used in packing appliances
crates, baskets, and cartons
shells and stones
blocks, as many shapes and sizes as possible
Drew’s Discovery Blocks®
bricks and building baseboards
cars, trucks, and trains
wooden and plastic dump trucks, farm vehicles, boats, and trains
vinyl, and wooden human and animal forms
house and furniture
Ingrid and Karen Worth. 2004. St. Paul, Minn.: Redleaf
Harriet. 1933/1996. “The art of blockbuilding.” In
E. Hirsch (ed.), Washington
D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Sharon. 2001. Block Play: The Complete Guide to Learning and
Playing with Blocks. Beltsville, Md.: Gryphon House.
Francis. 2002. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Karyn and Judith Kieff. 2001. Albany, N.Y.:
Delmar Thompson Learning.