Children’s blocks have been a staple in many toy boxes around the world for as long as most of us can remember. In fact toy makers began decorating blocks with letters of the alphabet in an attempt to sneak some “learning” into a child’s play. But it was soon noticed that young children usually ignored the letters and piled the blocks into tall towers. Fast forward to the 1930’s and educators began to notice that children’s play was to be taken seriously. Because serious play was in fact learning.
As play itself was being recognized as learning, a new type of block came on the market. They were just pieces of unpainted wood, the same width and thickness, and with lengths twice or four times as great as the unit block. A few curves, cylinders, and half thickness blocks were added, but all with lengths that fitted into the measurements of the basic blocks. These blocks are now known as “unit blocks”, and are found in most childcare settings. They have been found to be the most useful tool for self-education that young children can play with and work with. Most early childhood teachers realize the value of these blocks as giving children an opportunity to reproduce their experiences quickly and then play them out actively with their block creations.
Young children’s first block experiences do not represent block building. Blocks are typically carried from place to place, or they may be stacked or placed in irregular piles. This early experience with blocks allows the young child the chance to gain acquaintance with this particular building tool by manipulation and by using various forms and various spaces. Between 2 and 3 years of age, real construction begins and has been found to follow broadly three or four lines of development, especially in regard to the techniques. Blocks in these early years are comparable to such plastic materials as crayons, paints, or play dough, and their use is dependent upon impulse, which is influencing the young builder.
Repetition, repetition, repetition. All parents and teachers will agree that repetition in one form or another is characteristic of children who are just beginning to learn language and perfect their locomotion. A young child might climb up steps only to descend and climb up again. Usually the first meaningful words are da, da, da, or ma, ma, ma. Similarly we also find repetition in many forms appearing again and again in the first constructive use of blocks. The young child may begin lining blocks up in a long horizontal line (rows) or a child can repeat by piling blocks one on top of another (towers). At first, the resulting tower may be an irregular one, threatening to fall as each additional block is placed. At this stage lofty towers are not found because they crash.
As children become more familiar with block play we next notice that students can make single towers with blocks on edge as well as flat on their faces or with combinations of sizes or shapes. Children discover that a series of towers makes a wall, just as a series of rows makes a floor. As children’s block building skills increase the next problem to solve is “bridging”. As constructions made increase in elaboration and difficulty children must learn how to set up 2 blocks, leaving a space between them and roofing that space with another block. This is often a difficult problem to place the uprights at an appropriate distance apart, so that the third block will bridge the space.
Next in the sequence of block play development is making an “enclosure”. Enclosures appear early in building activities. To put 4 blocks together so that a space is completely enclosed is not a simple task. However with block play experiences it appears, and once learned, repetitive enclosures seem to be the next level of block play. At this stage our young architects are wrestling with the problem of making this building material (blocks) take on the quality of plasticity and almost of malleability. It will yield to the child’s desire. Children are absorbed, intent, and satisfied during this process. Soon enclosures become more elaborate. When children come to realize that blocks are a building material that is capable of being put together in an ordered arrangement, a variety of methods, patterns, and techniques seem to suggest themselves to them. With age, there is a steady increase in facility, imagination, elaboration of design, and actual number of blocks used.
As soon as children begin to acquire dexterity in the use of blocks, so that they feel at home with the material, we begin to notice that they build with balanced and decorative patterns. It’s here that we once again see repetition, repetition, repetition. It seems blocks are essentially the most plastic material for young children, because with blocks they seem able to arrange, to design, and to compose. Repetition is one of the features of design.
Somewhere along the developmental path of block building an impulse to name arises. This does not mean that the buildings resemble the things they are called. Among 2-3 year old children, we find naming, but very rarely play use of the structures made. Naming becomes very usual among older children. The name is often announced as an advance plan. Dramatic use of buildings increases as the techniques of building are well learned, so that the material is no longer master of the situation as it is earlier.
At later ages, the dramatic impulse is so strong that the buildings reproduce or symbolize actual structures or experiences that the children are recalling and set the stage for dramatic play.
In summary unit blocks are one of the most important and versatile materials you can place in the early childhood classroom as well as at home. The pleasure of blocks stems primarily from the aesthetic experience. It involves the whole person – muscles and senses, intellect and emotion, individual growth and social interaction. Learning results from the imaginative activity, from the need to pose and solve problems. Cognitive growth occurs through physical maturation coupled with first hand experiences. Block play further these processes.