Rocking and Rolling. Building New Skills: Block Construction in Toddler Settings
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Fourteen-month-old Anya carefully stacks one cube block on top of another. She claps her hands and laughs. Sam, the lead teacher, is sitting near Anya and a few other children watching their play. When he sees Anya clapping, he catches her eye and says, “You put one block on top! You made a stack of one, two blocks!”
Nearby, 16-month-old Clayton stacks three blocks and then knocks them down. “Uh-oh,” he says. Sam turns when he hears the blocks fall and says, “Clayton, you stacked the blocks up, up, up. Then you knocked them down, down, down. BOOM!” Clayton nods his head and picks up a block to start again.
Meanwhile, 12-month-old Ashlee holds a cube block in each hand and bangs them together, laughs, and then bangs them together some more. While she plays, Sam takes two blocks and slowly stacks them on top of each other while Ashlee watches. As Sam does this, he says, “Here is one block. Now I’ll put another block on top.” Ashlee watches briefly, bangs her blocks together a few more times, and then crawls off to another activity.
While block play has been a part of children’s play since at least the 17th century (Smith 2017), there has only recently been a growing effort to understand how block play can support early learning.
Block play with babies and toddlers
Research indicates that building with blocks supports math, science, and general reasoning skills across the first four years of life (Kamii, Miyakawa, & Kato 2004; Trawick-Smith et al. 2016). While many studies focus on preschoolers (ages 3 and up), block play is an activity that can begin from infancy in developmentally appropriate ways. Like other types of play, young children move from less complex to more complex combinations of block play (Kamii, Miyakawa, & Kato 2004; Braks 2017).
Block play begins with simply holding and carrying blocks. You will often see babies and toddlers grasping blocks in their hands, flinging them down, and picking them up again. Like Ashlee in the opening vignette, infants between about 9 and 12 months old use emerging fine motor skills to grasp blocks in each hand and bang them together (Parks 2006). Around 10 to 11 months old, babies are able to put objects in a container (Parks 2006), launching the joy of fill-and-dump activities. As children explore the concept of cause and effect, knocking down block towers is often a favorite game. But in the beginning, babies and young toddlers are not yet building with blocks, so either you or a patient older child will need to stack (and restack!) the towers.
The joy of towers
More complex block play begins when children discover that blocks offer specific affordances—clues that give insight into an object’s function (Gibson 2015). Starting at about 1 year old, children begin to explore the affordance of stacking and start to recognize how an object with flat sides invites it. This indicates that children understand the spatial concept of on (Kamii, Miyakawa, & Kato 2004). Between around 1 to 2.5 years old, young toddlers who have plenty of opportunities to play with blocks will quickly develop their abilities to stack two to eight (or more) blocks (Parks 2006). Especially with a teacher like Sam to narrate and expand on the play, this type of block building helps develop children’s understanding of additional spatial concepts like above, under, and next to.
Even Infants Love Exploring Blocks
Infants can do a lot with blocks long before they start building with them. Infants can
- Track a block in space as it is moved slowly by an adult across their visual field
- Reach for blocks that are placed within their grasp
- Explore blocks through the senses (hands and mouths)
- Drop blocks from a high chair to discover what happens
Building bridges and solving problems
Among toddlers who regularly engage in block play, towers soon become bridges (minimally, two blocks at the base with a third block stacked on top, spanning the two below). Bridge building tends to start around 30 months old; children often copy a bridge that an older child or adult has constructed (Parks 2006) and will begin to produce their own bridges after that.
Frequent and consistent exposure to early block play helps children develop foundational math skills related to three-dimensional shapes and construction. These experiences are important for all children, but perhaps especially important for children from under-resourced communities. One study found that by 3 years old, children from lower-income families were falling behind their peers from higher-income families in block assembly (Verdine et al. 2014).
Considerations for infant–toddler educators
You can set the stage for rich block exploration by providing children with a variety of different types of blocks in quantities appropriate for their ages. For example, infants may only need two or three blocks to explore, while young toddlers may need six to 10. The Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale: Revised Edition (Harms, Cryer, & Clifford 2006) also suggests providing accessories such as figures, animals, cars, and containers (to fill and dump) near the blocks. Recommended types of blocks include soft fabric or foam blocks; lightweight blocks of various sizes, shapes, and colors; large cardboard blocks; and plastic interlocking blocks. Older toddlers (ages 2 and up) can also benefit from unit blocks, tree blocks, and large hollow blocks. Offering a variety of block choices and rotating the different options can spark new learning.
Blocks offer children opportunities to develop not just math and problem-solving skills, but also critically important social and emotional qualities like self-control, managing frustrations, and persisting through challenges. There is also a sense of pride and a boost to self-esteem when a block tower or structure is completed. Adults play a big part in these experiences by enabling children to take their time, giving children regular opportunities to explore different types of blocks, and using rich language during block play. Together, you and the children in your classroom are constructing the foundational skills needed to succeed later on in school.
Think about it
- Did you play with blocks as a child? If so, was this a preferred type of play? Why or why not?
- How do you see the infants and toddlers in your setting exploring blocks? What skills and actions (mouthing, banging, dropping, stacking, constructing) have you observed?
- What role do you usually take when you see children exploring blocks? What do you do or say to expand children’s block play?
- Provide children with opportunities for block play, starting in the infant room. At this age, block play focuses on sensory exploration—blocks will be mouthed, grabbed, tossed, and banged (Chen et al. 2017).
- Encourage toddlers to work with blocks in groups. While toddlers typically engage in parallel play (playing nearby or next to, but not with, peers), they will often watch the way a peer uses or combines materials and imitate them. Through this watch-and-try-it cycle, toddlers practice and master new skills.
- As children enter the toddler years, offer block challenges as occasional activities. For example, with 2-year-olds, you might model how to make a three-block “train” (lining up three blocks horizontally and then pushing them as you say “choo choo”) (Parks 2006). Watch to see if children can imitate you. Or you can model how to make a bridge (described earlier) and see if children can copy it. Structured block play activities like the ones described here nurture skills like patterning, part–whole relationships, visualization, symmetry, and transformation (Casey & Bobb 2003).
- Use spatial language during block play with children, as Sam does in the opening vignette. Spatial language includes words that describe an object’s or a person’s location in space, for example: on top, underneath, next to, on the side, behind, in front of. Research has found that exposing children to spatial language starting in early toddlerhood predicts both the amount of spatial language children produce and better performance on spatial problem-solving tasks at age 4.5 (Pruden, Levine, & Huttenlocher 2011). Block play also encourages the use of conceptual language. For example, early educators can describe color (“Those are both red blocks”), shape (“I see you put the rectangle block on top of the square block”), and size (“I see you are putting all the little blocks in the bucket. I wonder if that big block will fit too”).
- Use block play as a chance to extend and expand children’s language. For example, a young toddler might say “uh-oh” when knocking down a block tower, like Clayton in the opening vignette. An early educator might expand on that phrase: “Uh-oh! The block tower fell down. Down, down, down. Do you want to build it up again?”
- Let children fail. Most adults understand that it’s not possible to balance a cube block on the point of a triangle block. But for children, the joy of block construction is making these discoveries themselves. Let children test their construction hypotheses. Adults can layer on language afterward to describe what happened: “I think the cube block couldn’t balance on the point of the triangle. It fell off.”
- Blocks can spark both STEM skills and pretend play skills. Children may pretend to eat a triangle block (“Pizza!”), or they may carefully sort blocks by size or shape. Let children’s interests and joyful engagement lead the way.
- Extend block play through intentional literacy experiences. There are many children’s stories that incorporate blocks and block constructions. For example, Jack the Builder, by Stuart J. Murphy, is a counting book that depicts how blocks can be combined to build structures. Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building, by Christy Hale, explores how children can build during creative play. A wordless story featuring ever-changing block constructions is Changes, Changes, by Pat Hutchins.
- Consider ways to engage families in block play. Ask for families to donate empty cardboard boxes. These can be filled with newspaper and taped shut to make delightful big blocks for toddlers to stack and combine. Create a lending library of different types of blocks for families to borrow and use at home. Host a family block-building night that offers family members a chance to explore the different blocks in the classroom, see how their children learn from these materials, and learn about the positive developmental impacts of block play.
- Document the learning and discovery you see happening in the block area. Photos and videos can capture a child’s first block tower, her problem-solving skills as she attempts to stack blocks, and her use of props in block constructions. Sharing these documentations with families helps them see the rich learning that emerges through play.
Braks, M.E. 2017. “7 Stages of Block Play: Building and Early Learning.” Spokane County Library District. www.scld.org/7-stages-of-block-play-building-and-early-learning/.
Casey, B.M., & B. Bobb. 2003. “The Power of Block Building.” Teaching Children Mathematics 10 (2): 98–102.
Chen, J.-Q., M. Hynes-Berry, B. Abel, C. Sims, & L. Ginet. 2017. “Nurturing Mathematical Thinkers from Birth: The Why, What, and How.” ZERO TO THREE 37 (5): 23–33.
Gibson, J.J. 2015. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. New York: Psychology Press.
Harms, T., D. Cryer, & R.M. Clifford. 2006. Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale: Revised Edition. New York: Teachers College Press.
Kamii, C.K., Y. Miyakawa, & Y. Kato. 2004. “The Development of Logico-Mathematical Knowledge in a Block-Building Activity at Ages 1–4.” Journal of Research in Childhood Education 19 (1): 44–57.
Parks, S. 2006. Inside HELP: Administration and Reference Manual for Using the Hawaii Early Learning Profile as a Birth to Three, Curriculum-Based Assessment. Palo Alto, CA: VORT Corporation.
Pruden, S.M., S.C. Levine, & J. Huttenlocher. 2011. “Children’s Spatial Thinking: Does Talk about the Spatial World Matter?” Developmental Science 14 (6): 1417–30.
Smith, E. 2017. “The ABCs of Wooden Alphabet Blocks.” Atlas Obscura. www.atlasobscura.com/articles/history-alphabet-blocks.
Trawick-Smith, J., S. Swaminathan, B. Baton, C. Danieluk, S. Marsh, & M. Szarwacki. 2016. “Block Play and Mathematics Learning in Preschool: The Effects of Building Complexity, Peer and Teacher Interactions in the Block Area, and Replica Play Materials.” Journal of Early Childhood Research 15 (4): 433–48.
Verdine, B.N., R.M. Golinkoff, K. Hirsh-Pasek, N.S. Newcombe, A.T. Filipowicz, & A. Chang. 2014. “Deconstructing Building Blocks: Preschoolers’ Spatial Assembly Performance Relates to Early Mathematical Skills.” Child Development 85 (3): 1062–76.
Photograph: © Getty Images
Rebecca Parlakian is the senior director of programs at ZERO TO THREE. She has developed a video series on early STEM and coauthored a recently released early math curriculum supplement. Rebecca has also coauthored five parenting and professional curricula and published articles on topics ranging from dual language development to the impact of screens on very young children. Rebecca holds a master’s degree in education and human development, with a concentration in infant-toddler special education, from the George Washington University, where she currently serves as adjunct faculty. Her most important work in child development, however, is her two children, Ella and Bennett.