The Importance of Block Play

Every single teacher has heard it before. It makes our teeth grind and our fists clench and our eyes roll so far into the backs of our heads that we fear they might never surface again:

“My kids don’t go to school. They go to daycare. They just play all day.”

Just play? JUST PLAY?! How many times have you wanted to sit down with someone and give them a stern talking to about the importance of play?

Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and numerous other educational theorists have all discussed in-depth the importance of play. Maria Montessori even went so far as to refer to play in her schools as “work”–because that’s what it is, to a child. Play is a child’s most important work.

One area of the classroom where this is most evident is your blocks center. Just think of all the skills a child is mastering in that particular type of open-ended play!

Girl (6-7) playing with building blocks

Problem Solving:
They’re thinking of things like “How can I build this?” “What do I need to make this?” “How can I make it more stable?”

Imagination and Creativity:
Children in the block center are imagining all of the ways they can manipulate the materials in front of them–and we never know what they’ll come up with next! From rocketships to barns, houses to castles, a child’s imagination knows no bounds when they are given the freedom to do things their own way.

Mathematics:
Children are learning concepts like measurement, comparing and contrasting, sorting, ordering, one to one correspondence, numbers, estimation, symmetry, balance and geometry when they build.

Continuity and Permanence:
Things like spatial reasoning, how a block tower can stand indefinitely.

Science:
They are testing hypotheses and building those scientific reasoning skills every time they try something new! Believe it or not, they’re even learning physics concepts while building, including gravity, compression and tension, as well as how to achieve balance and stability.

Social and Emotional Skills:
As children grow older and begin to play with each other, they learn how to share materials, cooperate, communicate and take turns.

Language:
The block area is a prime area for some great language modeling. Kids are exposed to words like: stability, structure, engineer, architect and more, along with spatial relation concepts like over, under, beside, bottom, top etc…

 

So what makes a great block area? According to the Environment Rating Scale, used by many states as a part of their Quality Rating and Improvement System, these are the must-haves to put together a rich environment in the block area:

  • The block area should be well-defined and out of traffic with a stable surface. It should also be protected so that children can build without worrying that their structures will be knocked over by classmates.
  • You should have multiple sets of different kinds of blocks (the ERS suggests 3 types for toddlers and 2 types for preschool. Each set should have at least 10-20 blocks). Types of blocks include wooden unit blocks, cardboard, fabric, plastic, foam and homemade. Blocks should be at least 2”x2”x2” (smaller blocks and blocks that interlock are considered a fine motor item in the ERS tool)

  • Include accessories for block play, including people, animals and vehicles. They should be stored in your block area in their own separate, labeled containers for ease of use by children.

  • Your block area should only include your blocks and accessories, according to the ERS. Other items (think train tracks, interlocking blocks like duplo or lego, dollhouses) can take over the space and leave little room for block play.

  • You can enhance block play even more by adding things like paper, clipboards and pencils for children to “draft” their buildings before building it. Adding rulers or tape measures can encourage them to practice measuring. Lining the top of the shelf with books on architecture or putting photos of famous buildings on the walls around the block area are other great ways of enriching their play and making it even more meaningful.

 

In addition to your block center, you can add building materials in other areas to stimulate those creative thinking skills and get kids engaged in the art of engineering and architecture. Magnatiles, Legos, Duplo, Lincoln Logs, K’nex and Tinker Toys are all fabulous fine motor materials to add to your manipulatives shelf. You can also consider adding a smattering of loose parts (think: recycled materials) to your art center.

If your students are all about building or you have a center you just want to shout about, please send us your photos and stories to outsidevoicesel@gmail.com, or reach out to us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook where you can find us as @outsidevoicesel.

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