By Mary Koepke Amato and Maria Mihalik Higgins
Photos by Danelle Frisbie
Each year, more toys that buzz, crawl, squish, transform, and whir hit the market. With all the neon colors and movable parts out there, it's no wonder that many parents overlook one of the most powerful learning toys of all time: plain wooden building blocks.
With a smorgasbord of smooth, unbreakable blocks spilled our before them, children will eagerly build their own town, airport, or space station, and then use their inventions for fantasy play. According to experts in early childhood education, this kind of constructive, creative activity is exactly what promotes healthy emotional and intellectual development.
In his book Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk, child psychologist David Elkind says that blocks are the first thing he hopes to see when he walks into a preschool classroom or daycare center. Unlike most commercial toys, blocks are considered a fundamental learning material, since they don't come with a prescribed recipe that children are supposed to follow. Similar to clay and paint, blocks become whatever children want them to become.
Harriet Cuffaro, professor of early childhood education at New York City's Bank Street College of Education, teaches block workshops to teachers-in-training. "Blocks have possibilities, but no clearly designed purpose," she says. "The child decides what to do with each block."
At the same time, blocks are not malleable like paint and clay, providing an additional challenge. If Jeremy wants to make a tunnel out of blocks, he can't just draw it or shape ir, he has to figure out how to use the given form to create a three-dimensional reality. Children need to spend a lot of time experimenting with manipulative materials, Cuffaro says. Blocks are not just for preschoolers, either: block play with older children can be even more stimulating.
If all you've seen is a two-year-old tornado knocking down her just-finished towers, you might question the educational benefits of block play. Step through the doors of a school in which block building is the foundation of the curriculum, however, and you'll see what incredible learning a few simple wooden shapes can inspire.
At the City & Country School, a private school in New York City for children ages 2 to 13, blocks are everywhere. Each Monday, teachers in the lower grades hold "block meetings" in which children decide what kind of structures they'll make. Throughout the week, block cities grow bigger and broader. In one week, a six-year-old boy will construct an apartment building with five floors and an adjacent parking garage; a seven-year-old girl will create a hospital with operating rooms, waiting rooms, and a cafeteria. On any given day in the kindergarten room, you might find the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, or a fire tation.
Watching the young architects design and construct their buildings is impressive. Not only are students exercising their creativity, they're developing problem-solving, spatial reasoning, and motor skills a well. And that's not all. In the process of building the world in miniature, children will have questions about the real world. The hospital engineer might wonder how X-rays work. A boy who constructed a bank might ask where money comes from.
City & Country teachers use the questions that arise from block play for lessons on every subject from art, economics, and government to science. Field trips to local banks, hospitals, and libraries give young architects and engineers even more information. As the year continues, students apply what they've learned by building even more sophisticated block cities. According to City & Country principal Kathleen Holz, at the end of a year, her seven year olds will have fashioned entire cities, often with function such as running water, lights, buzzer , and a working subway.
"Blocks are incredible tools for learning," Holz says. "They help children reconstruct their ideas in a way that is meaningful to them. They build the things that they find interesting, and then they play with what they've built. And as they play, they begin to ask more and more questions. It's exciting."
City & Country School is clearly atypical. Though many kindergartens and preschools have blocks, they're often relegated to a corner. Older children seldom have any access to blocks in school. But home can be a great place for block adventure. With the time and space for exploration and the right kind of facilitation from you, block play can be a rich addition to your child's life. Here's how to get tarted and what to expect.
Before buying a new set of blocks, ask around. Somebody's grandfather might have a box of blocks gathering dust in an attic. If possible, set aside a space in your playroom or basement for block building. Store the blocks neatly in low bins or shelves. Children are more likely to play with blocks if they're accessible. If your child hasn't shown interest in blocks, it's possible that they haven't been visible enough.
It takes only a simple introduction to get things going. Avoid saying, "What are you going to make?" This implies that your child is supposed to create something recognizable, Cuffaro says. Instead, begin with, "Here are some blocks. You can build with them."
You may be tempted at first to sit next to your child and build your own structure, either because you like blocks or because you think it will inspire her or him. This is something to resist, since imagination can be thwarted by adult interference. The house you build becomes your child's standard for what's "right." Instead of creating their own houses, children are likely to try - and most likely fail - to create yours. "Pass by and admire, or sit and watch," Cuffaro advises. "But don't build with your child."
Let your child find solutions to problems. "Let's say your child wants to build a bridge," Holz says. "Don't show him how to do it by stacking one long block across two other block . Making the bridge for him takes away the sense of accom- plishment he'll feel when he figures it out for himself."
If siblings or friends are playing with blocks together, prevent catastrophes by laying down this rule: If you want to make separate buildings, then give one another plenty of space to work. And if you do accidentally damage another building, you must repair it quickly and cheerfully.
If you have the space, it can be wonderful to allow block structures to stay out for a while, so that your child can keep adding details. Remember that the best thing about blocks is that they don't come with any instructions. Your child's own interests and imagination provide the unique blueprints for building. The best thing you can do is to provide the blocks and then get out of the way.
WHAT TO EXPECT WITH YOUR LITTLE ONES
Eighteen-month-old Max picks up a block, drops it, picks it up again. He walks over to a table and sets it down. He pushes it over the edge and watches it fall. Although Max's play may seem inconsequential and his movements may seem random, he is learning a lot. Toddlers and older children who have never experienced blocks need to spend time just getting a feel for them. "Sensory exploration - discovering the weight and shape of blocks - is the first stage of block play," Cuffaro explains.
Like all great engineers, youngsters will spend countless hours testing the physical capabilities of their material. How high can I make this tower before it falls? What happens if I put a large block on top of a small one?
Eventually, children move on to the next stage of block play, which is to use them in fantasy play. Two-year-old Sarah lines 20 blocks end-to-end to use as a train track for her imaginary train. Three-year-old Brain makes a circle of blocks on the floor and sets his teddy bear inside it.
Even these simple projects show accomplishment. Fantasy play with blocks demonstrates the child's ability to absorb and conceptualize real-life events. Pediatrician T. Berry Brazleton points out in his book Touchpoints that fantasy play is evidence "not only of cognitive competence, but also of a kind of emotional freedom."
Simple projects also often lead to more play and problem-solving. "A child wants to have a bed for her doll," Holz says. "First, the child must figure out how to make it. When she does, it is emotionally satisfying. She plays with it, and her play will stimulate a new set of problems. Suddenly, she wants a table to go with the bed, and so she has to make a table."
You should be aware that many children also create intentionally abstract, seemingly purposeless structures. Don't make your child put a label on it by asking what it is. Think of it as art for art's sake, or sculpture rather than structure, and enjoy the early masterpieces with your child. Comment positively on the effort and the aesthetics, Cuffaro suggests. Say, "Wow, you worked hard on that! Look how the light is coming through the spaces! You used so many blocks!" And watch your little construction worker beam.
WHAT TO EXPECT WITH OLDER CHILDREN
As children learn more about the world, they want to represent what they've learned through blocks in more detail. They build more complicated structures, such as police stations, beauty parlors, and schools. The focus of play naturally shifts from the building's appearance to what happens inside. Children will incorporate little figures and vehicles into their block cities and act out story after improvised story. This is an exciting stage, and one that parents miss entirely if they pack up the blocks when their kids graduate from kindergarten.
If two or more children are building together, they'll begin socializing in their play. A little police officer from the station will visit the school to give a lecture on safety. A teacher from the school will decide to get a haircut in the beauty parlor, and so on. In playing out these miniature dramas, children get the chance to practice what they are learning about human relations and daily activities. They also are learning to play cooperatively.
"Block building at this stage provides lovely learning opportunities for parents and children," Holz says. "Let's say your kids are building an airport. You can go to the library and get a book about airports: Look at it together and talk about all the things airports have. Or even better, maybe you can take a trip to the airport."
One of the most interesting changes is that older children become sticklers for accuracy. "A four year old will have a person 'fly' to the top of a building," Cuffaro explains. "But a six year old will realize that people can't do this and will try to build an elevator."
When your child starts to ask questions about how things "really work," you can help her or him find answers. Ask a lot of questions, too. How do you get from one floor to another in a big building? How do elevators work? How could you make one? Don't be surprised when your six-year-old actually rigs an ingenious little elevator, perhaps using string, a paper clip, and a disposable cup.
At this stage, you should try to provide other common building materials to use with the blocks. Paper, string, wire, and tape are essential. Check your junk drawer for any other items your young inventor could use. You might even want to invest in more sophisticated items, like bulbs, batteries, buzzers, and small metal pulleys. Check hobby shops, hardware stores, and educational supply stores for ideas.
When is a child too old for block play? "Your kids will tell you when they want to pack their blocks away for good," Holz says. But don't be surprised if it isn't for a long while.