History of Blocks
In the early 1900’s Caroline Pratt was re-thinking her profession as teacher in New York City. She wanted more than the average lessons of reading, writing and arithmetic. She wanted appropriate experiences to aid in those lessons. She felt strongly about the importance of play in a child’s development and was interested in creating appropriate play materials. With the influence of Frobel and his gifts, and using her background in woodworking, she created simple, basic blocks (later called unit blocks) for children to explore and build with. These blocks, she found, gave children a way to express themselves artistically, helped them to work with others, gave them opportunities to use basic geometry and allowed them to express themselves verbally or through written form when naming their structures and asking questions. These simple wooden blocks had become a precious tool for learning many subjects. “Many schools for young children now use these blocks. They have been found to be the most useful tool for self-education that young children can play and work with” (Johnson, 1974, p.9).
Learning Through Play
When playing with blocks children are gradually learning many different subject matters. The Youngest child will usually begin block play by carrying them around or piling them up. The next stage is usually placing the blocks horizontally. A child who has used blocks before, will usually then move to building upward until the tower ultimately tumbles over. Structures get more complex as the child continues to grow and explore ( Dodge & Colker, 1996).
Language and Block Play
There is a relationship between symbolic play and language development (Saracho & Spodek, 2001). Block play allows symbolism and language to happen simultaneously. When building structures with blocks, children are recreating experiences and making sense of them. Children are planning out their building and experimenting with materials that have weight and wonder. Older children often want to label their structures with names or signs. A teacher is able to further the child’s learning with open ended questions, expanding vocabulary and ideas.
Mathematics and Physical Awareness and Block Play
When a child uses language to describe their block structures, that child is also learning basic math properties. The blocks themselves are basic geometric shapes in a three-dimensional form. These forms start the child off with concepts they will use for the rest of their lives. Blocks are a common sorting and classification tool in early education. Children eagerly sort blocks by shape and size and purpose, which in turn encourages the construction of early counting and numeration skills (Rogers & Russo, 2003). When a child moves from horizontal structures to vertical structures, this discovery leads to simple understandings of length, height and weight of an object. The child uses his or her own body as a template to height and the concept of movement of an object is also discovered (Hirsh, 1974).
With the beginning questions and labeling of block structures in language development comes the social aspect of block play. When children’s interest in block play grows, so does their capacity to facilitate block play with their peers. Older children will design a template for their peers and the small group will proceed to build accordingly. This kind of block play involves the development of social skills, with taking turns, using other’s ideas, and being aware of others movements in the building block space. For preschool children, these social lessons may be the most important in block play. These lessons help a child navigate in the real world while still giving them the opportunity to express themselves imaginatively.
Utilizing Blocks Today
Children in today’s preschool classrooms are using blocks just as they did in Caroline Pratt’s day. There has been a push in high quality centers for the inclusion of a block area in each classroom, or in other words, an appropriate place designated for only block play. In the popular book, The Creative Curriculum, block importance is given a full chapter. “Unit blocks provide a wealth of learning activities that allow children to acquire important concepts in math, science, geometry, social studies and more” (Dodge, 1996, p.75).
All of this development lends itself to the artistic expression block play provides on a daily basis to children using them. Children are able to imagine a structure or a place and create it on their own. As teacher Harriet Johnson (1974) described, “The wonder of blocks is the many sided constructive experiences they yield to the many-sided constructive child- and every child is such if guided by a many-sided constructive parent or teacher” (p.9). Johnson places emphasis on the idea of this many-sided constructiveness, the idea that blocks are so multifaceted and can be integrated into so many lessons of life and lessons of schooling. Each child can take these wooden objects and create as well as develop the skills needed to succeed in school and in life.
Dodge, D.T. & Colker, L.J. (1996). The Creative Curriculum for Early Childhood. Washington D.C. : Teaching Strategies.
Johnson, H.M. (1974). The Art of Block Building. In E.S. Hirsch (Ed.), The Block Book (p.9-24). Washington D.C. : NAEYC.
Rogers, A. & Russo, S. (2003). Blocks: A commonly Encountered Play Activity in the Early Years, or a Key to Facilitating Skills in Science, Math and Technology. Investigating, 19 (1), 17-21.
Saracho, O.N. & Spodek, B. (2001). Contemporary Perspectives on Early Childhood Curriculum. Greenwich, CT:Information Age