Blocks were a toy of choice as far back as the late 1600s, when English philosopher John Locke declared the learning of letters and numbers printed on blocks would make it a more enjoyable experience. More than 300 years later the research is – learning through play is best and blocks are the cutting edge of this movement.
Which Block is Best
Blocks can be made from foam, wood, bamboo or plastic. Wood is the traditional material for blocks and offers the extra sensory advantages of smell and texture. Wooden blocks also weight more than plastic or foam, which means engaging muscles in small hands and fingers. We advocate wooden blocks when so few toys are made from natural materials these days.
The act of arranging blocks in formations, shapes and mini buildings helps a child learn about gravity, balance and basic geometry. The natural urge for a baby will be to touch them or put a block in their mouth. As they get older they will be more inclined to build blocks higher or into shapes. This is an important step in developing their creativity and introduces them to the concept of building things to get a desired result. Arranging of blocks into structures helps develop spatial awareness and the ability to rotate objects in their mind. Keep the block building game open ended without nominating a building or thing that they should do with the blocks. Ask open-ended questions like: “why have you done that with those blocks?”, “what other things would you like to do with the blocks?”
A block with numbers on it doesn’t mean you should start teaching your child to count. Identifying blocks that look similar, or merely grouping or separating the blocks will introduce them to simple maths. Keep the block play as creative and free from traditional counting or alphabet learning as the child desires. Block play is essentially a crude form of model building – which is the common exercise of engineers, architects and scientists wanting to visualise their vision. As children get older you can introduce more sophisticated blocks. Only when they reach an age when they ask about counting or letters should you introduce these concepts. While studies have found regular block play in childhood helps teenagers with superior mathematics performance, there are also age-appropriate blocks for primary kids, tweens and teenagers that studies have found can continue to stimulate learning and intellectual skills.
Convergent Versus Divergent Play
Psychologists define two types of children’s play – convergent and divergent. The latter is a closed-ended activity like solving a jigsaw. Divergent play is open ended and involves working with objects that don’t fit together. A study of these two types of play found the latter – which block play is a quintessential example of – was a better skill to foster in children to help them solve problems more creatively later in life.
Other Developmental Markers
Last decade a study was conducted that involved one group of children where other elements of play like miniature cars, people and similar items were added to block play with instructions to parents to encourage block play. A control group of parents and children were given no instructions and blocks were only introduced at the end of the study. The study found the block play children scored higher on vocabulary, grammar and verbal comprehension and had less interest in television or other screen stimulation than the control group.
Block play may be overlooked by many parents as a bygone pastime for babies. But recent studies support the role and value of block play in a range of developmental skills and valuable life attributes.