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Blockbusters

They don't beep, glow, or talk back. Blocks are just the single most important toy a child can have.

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / February 24, 2000

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NEWTON—Patrick Thornberg and Max Brandl, who are both 4, and Ross Barlow, 3, are huddled over big building blocks, stacking and moving them around until they occupy a third or so of the block room's floor space. ``We're making a bread factory. It's hard work,'' says Max.

``The bread goes here,'' says Ross, pointing to a block. ``Uh-oh,'' they warn in unison as the factory collapses. ``Let's make it again,'' Patrick suggests cheerfully.

In another room, Sarena Borer, 3, sits alone on the floor, oblivious to the hubbub around her. She is bent over unit blocks that she has fit tightly against one another in a large square. Most of them lie flat, a few are set vertically, and she's arranging Fisher Price people to lie on the flat ones. She's too engrossed to want to chat much.

``This is a house,'' she says finally. ``Everyone is asleep.''

Watching 3- and 4-year-olds at the Preschool Experience in Newton, you might not guess they were doing anything more than having fun. Guess again. There's serious learning going on here, from building pre-math skills to gaining social competence. Blocks are the single most important toy a young child can have, and block play is the single most productive activity, say early childhood educators.

``If I could give my child only one toy, it would be blocks,'' says Micki Corley, Preschool Experience codirector.

But educators are noticing a disturbing trend: As the technological era reaches down to even our youngest children and as there is more emphasis on standardized testing and rote learning, blocks too often are forgotten in the toy chest.

``I know preschools where the block room has been dismantled, where blocks are either a treat or a punishment, or where they are available only for 20 minutes on Fridays,'' says Karyn Wellhousen, an early childhood educator from Spanish Fort, Ala., who specializes in block play.

At a conference last fall for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, she urged teachers to bring blocks back to prominence in their classrooms. Wheelock College professor Ed Klugman worries that blocks also have diminished stature in parents' eyes. That toys today are more electronic and less open-ended reflects a societal trend that more is better.

``[Parents] can't believe something worthwhile comes from plain, ordinary blocks,'' he says.

Ah, but does it ever. So much so that blocks are part of the curriculum even in third grade at the Pacific Oaks Children's School in Pasadena, Calif., a cutting-edge lab school of Pacific Oaks College.

``When they study families, they might replicate their house in blocks with two or three floors, or their neighborhood in vast, complex structures,'' says director Jane Rosenberg.

That block play is in decline saddens Harriet K. Cuffaro, the nation's leading authority on the subject. ``Blocks are fundamental materials,'' she says. ``They respond to every aspect of development.'' Here's why:

They're open-ended. As children grow, blocks grow with them. ``They're an unstructured material,'' says Klugman. ``There's no right or wrong way to play with them and they encourage imagination and creativity: Children can be the scriptwriters instead of having a script fed to them,'' as they do when they play with toys that are spinoffs from a TV show. Klugman is cofounder of Playing for Keeps, an international conference in Boston March 17-19 on the future of play.

They lay the foundation for cognitive learning. Unit blocks, a basic wooden block that is preferred most by educators (it's also among the most expensive, but Cuffaro says they are worth saving for or asking relatives to pitch in to buy), have an established proportional system that helps with pre-math skills. There's the basic block and then a double, which is twice as long, or a half block, which is half as long, etc. Cuffaro says that as children discover these equivalents for themselves, their understanding of relationships among or between objects grows. Cuffaro is professor emeritus of Bank Street College in Manhattan and curriculum director of the City and Country School, also in Manhattan.

They teach about spatial relationships. A child learns to manipulate her body within an area without knocking over the blocks. She also learns what makes them balance, what makes them tip, and what the attributes are of different shapes and sizes.

They promote social growth. ``If one of the skills we hope to develop in children is a sense of cooperation and working as a team, nothing teaches better than blocks,'' says Rosenberg. As children build together, they negotiate and help one another, much as Patrick, Ross, and Max did with the bread factory. Corley says she's seen over and over again how a preschooler who's not socially adept can make a best friend in the block room and feel emboldened enough to extend the skill into other areas of play with other children. ``Block play is a very nonthreatening way to encourage social interaction because the task is spontaneous and child-driven,'' she says. Children typically go through seven stages in block play, a sign that they are growing and developing. As they build on previous experiences, construction becomes more complex, but even a 5-year-old, playing with blocks for the first time, will go through the same stages in the same sequence (minus the infant stage and albeit at a faster pace):

Carrying and dumping. Sometime between 7 and 12 months, infants tend to carry individual blocks around, mouth them, carry them from one container to another, dump them out, and start over. They might also bang blocks together or against other objects. This is all about exploring the senses, says Wellhousen, coauthor of ``Revisiting Tradition: Block Play in Early Childhood'' (Delmar).

Stacking. Toddlers can spend lots of time piling blocks up and knocking them down, or laying them flat on the floor from end to end (a ``road'') or side to side to make a solid square. Cardboard ``brick'' blocks are good for this age: They help with large motor skills and spatial relationships. Colored blocks and blocks of different shapes can be introduced now.

Bridging. When a child lays one block horizontally across two verticals, he's learning about balance. This stage, usually reached about age 3, involves lots of repetition and no particular goal but a fair amount of problem solving. ``He has to move the base blocks in order to accommodate the top block,'' says Wellhousen.

Enclosures. Reaching this stage shows a significant cognitive leap, says Wellhousen: A child has to figure out when to turn the blocks to form an oval or square. The trial and error takes lots of patience and can be thoroughly engrossing. This can be a good time to introduce Duplos and Bristle blocks; even though they are ``manipulatives,'' not blocks, they expand on stacking and bridging skills and help with small-motor muscle tone.

Patterns. In this stage, children are satisfied only when their structure is perfectly even, with sides symmetrically in balance. There can be architectural flourishes at this stage, with triangle shapes on top of towers, for instance, and a lot of attention to aesthetic detail. Corley likes the specialty blocks (skyscraper, castle) that feed into this stage, but purists would avoid them, preferring blocks that don't influence the play.

Early representational. At about 4 or 5, a child begins to give a name to her construction, but only after she has built it. In other words, says Cuffaro, there's no intentionality; she is creating forms as a kind of architectural experimentation.

Later representational. Now there is intentionality: He decides beforehand what to build and has a plan. In addition, says Cuffaro, he becomes part of the play, using his structure as a prop to re-create familiar scenes: garage, school, house, hospital. This stage can last for years; the older children are, the more intricate the structure and props, and the richer the play.

``Children re-create their experience to express it,'' says Cuffaro. ``Giving it form helps them make sense out of it. For children who don't have the vocabulary we do to talk about their lives, it serves the same purpose as talking does for us.''

Parents and teachers play a big role in keeping play safe. At the Preschool Experience, for instance, no big block structure can be taller than a child's shoulders lest blocks topple on them. But we walk a fine line between facilitating play and getting overly involved in it, which can undermine play.

Rosenberg tells parents to encourage problem solving if two children disagree - ``Where else can you put that block so it doesn't disturb what Joey built?'' - and to ask questions that will expand the play.

Watching three children build a garage recently after a field trip, she asked, ``I'm remembering the garage we saw. How did cars get in and out?'' ``Ramps!'' they said, looking at one another excitedly.

Wellhousen, however, cautions, ``Don't try to push them ahead to the next stage by modeling play.'' While a child may be able to duplicate what you show him, he won't have learned it.

``Kids need to have that `Aha!' moment, when they discover it on their own,'' says Rosenberg.

There are lots of moments like that at the Preschool Experience. ``We have block play in some form every day,'' says Corley. The block room is ideal for big construction but there are also 10 different kinds of blocks in the classrooms.

``Different blocks serve different purposes,'' says Corley, grasping one of her favorites, the hexagon block. Made in graduated sizes of soft wood, the shape of this block invites you to wrap your hands around it. ``It's great for kids who need help with small muscle tone,'' she says.

As she speaks, Sky Striar, 3, and Shira Lehmann, 3, are using Skyscraper blocks on a table in the 4-year-olds' room. ``I put a person on top because I wanted to,'' Sky tells a visitor.

``Why don't you put her on top of here instead?'' says Shira, pointing to a lower spot. ``It's gonna fall soon,'' she warns.

``OK,'' says Sky. Later, as the two join some boys in the block room, where they all decide to build a duck, Sky tells Shira, ``You're a good person to build with.'

Suggestions
for parents

Different blocks serve different purposes; the more variety, the better.

Blocks aren't only for building. On a rainy day, use them inside to build an obstacle course for jumping.

Dense foam blocks for infants and toddlers are hard to find but Creative Playthings catalog (800-448-4115) carries them (Soft and Still Blocks).

A child can be in more than one stage of block play at once, but if he seems stuck for a year or more in one stage, he may not be getting enough block-play time.

Whenever possible, leave up a block structure a child is particularly proud of. It allows for extending the play with added complexity.

Even cleanup can be educational: "Can you give me a pile of two blocks/all red ones/all squares?" "Let's make an assembly line: You hand it to Tim, he gives it to me."
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