Block play is one of my favorite areas in the early childhood realm! I believe that you can start building with your children when they are INFANTS. Yes, for real, you can help infants build. I recommended buying a block set in my introduction post, and you can read more about that here. In every classroom I’ve worked in, in every country, blocks are an essential learning tool. They teach so many skills that I am just elated to share this post with you.
As a professional early childhood educator, I am a big fan of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). NAEYC has some parent-friendly info on child development in their free online magazine. Check out this simple article on the benefits of block play!
Setting the Scene
Before we keep talking about blocks – let’s define what I mean by “block.” I make the distinction that a block is a wooden, plastic, magnetic or cardboard object used to build larger structures. I don’t consider Legos, Duplos, or other types of building materials (interlocking cubes, shapes, bristle blocks, etc). These materials are considered manipulatives, not blocks, and we’ll cover those in a different week.
So, you’ll need a block set, as listed above. However, it’s not a bad idea to have some smaller supplementary sets of blocks to complement the more basic set. By this I mean that you can include small colored blocks, textured blocks, see-through blocks, magnetic blocks or any other type of block that your child enjoys.
Tips for Building with Blocks
Do encourage free play. It is always a good idea to supply your kiddo with the materials and see what they do with them! Sometimes, you may even be amazed at the things your child can build.
Do teach your infant to build by stacking. It’s common for younger children to learn to play with blocks by stacking, then knocking them down…and that’s great! This teaches problem solving and hypothesizing, plus even some math skills.
Do ask them to build something specific if they are feeling stuck. So, though free play is a great idea, some children may not know how to interact with blocks. It’s possible that some children may not yet have developed spatial skills that allow them to imagine and create more elaborate block structures. In this case, build with your child. As them to build something specific. Talk them through the process. Plus, building with blocks is fun as adult, too!
Don’t label what they are making. If your child is able to create on his/her own, always ask what they are building, rather than tell them. I mentioned this in the blog post about creating language opportunities through art, but it will help your child’s vocabulary, cognitive skills, problem solving skills, and overall language if you let them explain to you what they are making.
Do use printed pictures (or pictures on the computer or iPad) as inspiration. It’s a good idea to expose your child to many types of buildings and structures. However, sometimes it’s not possible to travel to a big city to see the skyscrapers! Instead, print out some pictures or pull some up on a tablet that can show your child different kinds of buildings and structures. Explain what they are, and what they are for…anything from a silo to a school to a 100-story office building!
Don’t force your child to clean up elaborate block structures. Ok, so this one might be hard for some parents. If your child is an excellent block-builder and spends time, energy, and mental effort building structures, do not ask your child to clean them up each time he/she is finished playing with the blocks. Instead, if you need an “ending” to play time, set a timer and allow this to signal the end of play. The reason for this is that this gives children the opportunity to build on what they have done, rethink what they have done, review what they have done, edit, change, knock it all down and start over – you get the idea. If you ask them to clean it up, they will be starting from scratch each time they sit down to build.
Do teach your child block-play etiquette. This is an important issue that arises as children age developmentally from stacking and knocking down to building more sophisticated and significant structures. I know I said earlier that it is great for infants and toddlers to stack and knock down towers – but this is a game that should start to fade out between 3 and 4 years old. The shift between “toddler” and “preschooler” should signal a child’s ability to start developing more advanced spatial skills and therefore, a great ability to create block structures. It’s important that parents teach their children about block-play etiquette – teaching children that they are only allowed to knock down their own structure and nobody else’s (i.e. a sibling or a friend at school). Children are developing at different rates, so spatial skills, behavioral ability and self-control will affect the block-play environment.
Do include animals, people and accessories. This is the fun part! Once a structure is shaped (built to be functional, designed, planned out, etc), children should actually utilize what they’ve built! Did your child build a barn? Awesome, get some farm animals up in there! Did your child build an office building? Cool, get some people to work in there. Did your child build a castle? Great, get some knights and dragons to protect it. Block-play can lead to pretend play, and it is super fun.
Check out the animals in this structure from Let the Children Play.
Do include paper and pencil or whiteboard, at all times. This may seem weird, but having paper and a writing utensil handy for all play activities is ESSENTIAL! Let’s imagine for a minute that your child has built a restaurant with his/her blocks. You’ve got the people in there and even some pretend play food, that’s great. Now is a HUGE opportunity to teach language and literacy by including some paper and pencil to write the menu, take down an order on a notepad, write the specials on the board, write the bill….you get the idea. Here’s the most important part, your child does NOT need to know how to write or spell to benefit from this suggestion! Scribbling down nonsense with intention is just as awesome as writing the real words. If your child is doing pretend play and telling you that they are writing down the order for a sandwich and fruit, but all you see is scribbling on the paper, please know that this is an awesome step towards reading and writing! You can help your child by working on the first letter of a word if they are preschoolers. If your child is a toddler, help them by aiding in pencil grip, or try hand-over-hand scribbling.
Do take pictures. You’ll find that if your child likes to build and you provide them with some of the opportunities mentioned above, it won’t be long until the structures your child builds start getting more and more complex. I have seen so many simply amazing towers, buildings and scenes created by kiddos. It’s definitely a good idea to take pictures of your child’s awesome creations. You can use them just for memories, or print out and hang up as inspiration!
Math Vocabulary. Blocks of various shapes and sizes are used throughout elementary school to teach simple counting and multiplying. A popular way of counting in tens is to use a 10×10 block grid. You can practice adding, subtracting and counting. For your little, little guys, blocks are a great way to practice number vocabulary from 1-10. All you have to do is say the number as you stack blocks on top of each other. One, two, three, four….Most likely your little guy will knock your tower down before you get to ten!
Spatial Vocabulary and Prepositions. For some kids, learning prepositions comes naturally. For example, children may learn through modeling and example when given directions. If you say, “Put the plate on top of the counter,” children will learn what this means through observation. Other children have a difficult time learning prepositions and they must be explicitly taught. Blocks are a great way to practice, especially when you use blocks of a different shape (like a block with a semi-circle cutout). Place a small figurine on top of the blocks, under a block, next to a block, all the while labeling and teaching your child what you are doing. If you’d like to teach some spatial skills, you can also use blocks to create 3-D shapes. Stack the blocks in a square or a rectangle. Create patterns on the ground. Whatever you choose to do with your child – tell them what you’re doing. These language opportunities work best if you can label your actions and point out vocabulary as you’re playing along.
Small World Pretend Play. Did your child create a rocketship out of blocks? Awesome. Get some play people in there and start a conversation between them. “Hey Mister, have you got your space helmet on?” “Why yes, yes I do. I’m ready to fly around in outer space…” You get the idea. Small world pretend play is an awesome way to teach conversational turns, vocabulary, and theory of mind (the ability to inference what others may be thinking).
Ask for details. As children create, there might be times when you aren’t quite sure what they are doing. Where is this train going? I thought they were building a house, but now it looks oval shaped. Is this is an oval shaped house? Well, a great language opportunity is peeking out here because you have the chance to ask your child to provide details about his/her work. Using a simple phrase like “Tell me more about what you’re building…” gives your child a chance to explain details about the build. Don’t be afraid to pry, if your child doesn’t share too much, get more specific. “I see that you made a square shape here. What’s that going to be for?”
Use the paper and writing utensil. If your child is writing, why not write too? Sketch out what they are building. Write a menu as an example and stick it on the wall of their restaurant. Write down the numbers from one to ten to show them as you count together. There are endless ways for you to model how to use a pen and paper in front of your child. Make lists, practice numbers, draw pictures. It is all a great way to open up a conversation with your child and show them how the words in that conversation relate to what’s on paper. This is a great early literacy activity because it covers several parts of the literacy milestones.
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Block play is so diverse, it’s why I recommend every child have a plain, simple block set! Have you built any amazing block structures with your children? I would love for you to share your experience in the comments!