We see many types of blocks in American early childhood classrooms—unit blocks, cardboard blocks, wooden, hollow blocks, pattern blocks, and interlocking blocks such as Duplos and Legos, to name the most popular types of blocks among early childhood professionals. Developmental psychologists sometimes divide block play into two categories: Unstructured and structured. In the former, children use blocks to build designs of their choice, while in the latter children attempt to make a particular structure from a model. The unstructured block play invokes children’s imagination and develops their ability to produce complex spatial relationships without prompting whereas structured block play calls upon the ability to analyze a spatial representation to recreate a model.
Block building follows six stages of developmental sequence in young children (Hirsch, 1996; MacDonald, 2001; Newburger & Vaughan, 2006). They are:
- Discovering—Children carry, move, touch, hold, pile, knock down, and drop the blocks. Children do little or no building.
- Towers and Roads—Children stack blocks vertically or line them up in rows horizontally. Children will often repeat a pattern over and over.
- Bridges—Children form a space between two blocks and place a third block on top to make a bridge or doorway. Children begin to explore balance and use the widths and ends of the blocks.
- Enclosures—Children can close up a space between blocks with another block(s) to make walls, fences, rooms, cages, and so on. Children add figures, such as animals or cars, as dramatic play begins.
- Patterns and Symmetry—Children make more elaborate, decorative structures, using pattern and symmetry. Children often sort and match block shapes and sizes.
- Pretending—Children name their structures for dramatic play. Structures often reproduce or symbolize actual buildings the children know. Children begin to plan ahead and ask for things to use in the block center for props. Children often want to build and play with a structure over a period of several days or weeks.
Blocks have a number of unique features. The major ones include flexibility, adaptability, affordance of almost an infinite variety of expressive opportunities from floor patterns and designs to vertical buildings and representations, and service as a means rather than an end in the learning process. Block play is found to promote children’s ability in problem solving, communicating, perspective taking, spatial reasoning, and representational skills. In block play, children gain a range of mathematics skills, such as symmetry, measurement, estimation, part/whole relationship, pattern, and shapes. They also learn about basic physics concepts, such as balance, inclined surface, and weight. They further practice architectural abilities such as reading the blueprint and understanding two and three dimensional representations.
Spatial reasoning and mathematical concepts, central to block play, are malleable. Early experiences in block building and puzzle play can strengthen spatial and mathematical thinking, which is critical to human intelligence and school learning. In addition to providing materials, space, and time for children to play with blocks, adults need to talk to children using a variety of mathematical language (e.g., spatial words such as between, above, near, and below, and mathematical vocabulary such as long, short, tall, big, small, triangle, half circle). Math talk helps children connect hands-on experience with precise and scientific concepts and fortify the potential of block play. Adults can also introduce the idea of combining block play with pretend play to enrich and extend children’s experience in both types of play.