The science of development play

Toy blocks, additionally known as “constructing blocks,” are stable shapes used for development play. Some are easy planks fabricated from wooden. Others are fancier, just like the interlocking bricks of plastic made by LEGO ® and MEGA Bloks®. However no matter kind they take, blocks can operate as highly effective studying instruments.

toddler and father playing with building blocks on the floor

Research recommend that development toys can assist kids develop

  • motor expertise and hand-eye coordination,
  • spatial reasoning,
  • cognitive flexibility,
  • language expertise,
  • a capability for artistic, divergent considering,
  • social competence, and
  • engineering expertise.

There’s additionally proof that advanced block-play is linked with increased mathematical achievement.

How does all of it occur? It’s straightforward to see how stacking and arranging toy blocks may stimulate a younger little one’s motor growth. However for different expertise, it’s doubtless that children have to do greater than merely transfer blocks round. Analysis means that kids profit when development play incorporates further components, together with:

  • constructing from templates,
  • partaking in cooperative tasks, and
  • speaking with others about spatial relationships.

Here’s a assessment of the proof, with some ideas for enriching block play.

Infants – even younger infants – can hone their motor expertise by taking part in with blocks

Can infants play with blocks? Sure! However, as you’ll count on, block play takes totally different types relying on a toddler’s age and developmental stage. Infants as younger as 6 months might take pleasure in greedy and dealing with blocks, however probably the most basic exercise required to construct with blocks – stacking – doesn’t emerge till later.

In a examine monitoring the event of 37 infants over time, solely 16% of 10-month-olds have been noticed stacking one merchandise on prime of one other. By 12 months, roughly 45% had reached this milestone, and some infants have been stacking two or extra gadgets. By 14 months? Most infants have been stacking, and 38% may construct buildings by stacking two or extra items (forming a three-component “tower”). However 13% of 14-month-olds weren’t seen stacking in any respect (Marcinowski et al 2019).

What are infants studying throughout these early experiences with block play? They’re honing positive motor expertise — bettering their capacity to understand and manipulate. They’re additionally growing hand-eye coordination, which incorporates studying to regulate the pace with which they attain and transfer their arms, in order that they are going to finally be able to slowing down as they place one block on prime of one other. Such coordination will probably be essential for constructing taller towers (consider the sport, “Jenga”), in addition to for creating “bridges,” the place two columns are topped by a cross-piece.

By the age of 24 months, most kids are able to stacking 6 blocks or extra, however this capacity is rooted in earlier expertise (Marcinowski et al 2019). To change into a proficient builder, your child wants a lot of follow! So it is sensible to supply your little one with blocks at an early age. Be certain that they’re unhazardous and baby-safe, and your toddler can examine the tactile and visible properties of blocks — dealing with, shaking, tossing, sorting, and carrying them. Your child may additionally take pleasure in flattening towers that you simply construct, and this, too, is a invaluable studying expertise!

Toy blocks promote higher spatial reasoning

We all know there are hyperlinks between spatial expertise and development play. For instance, when Yvonne Caldera and her colleagues noticed the development actions of 51 preschoolers, they found a sample: The children who confirmed extra curiosity in development — and constructed extra advanced buildings — carried out higher on a standardized check of spatial intelligence (Caldera et al 1999).

Different research have documented comparable correlations in older college kids and adolescents. When children are requested to observe a mannequin to create a particular construction, the people who produce probably the most correct creations are those with the strongest spatial expertise (Oostermeijer et al 2014; Richardson et al 2014; Jirout and Newcombe 2015; Bower et al 2020; Zhang et al 2020).

This doesn’t show that block play causes kids to develop superior spatial expertise. Perhaps causation works the opposite means. Youngsters with superior spatial expertise could also be extra motivated to play with toy blocks! However there may be experimental proof, too – proof suggesting that we are able to enhance spatial reasoning skills by encouraging children to tinker and construct.

As an example, when researchers assigned kindergartners to take part in a program of guided development play, these children subsequently outperformed their friends on checks of spatial visualization, block constructing, and “psychological rotation” — the flexibility to rotate and analyze 3-D shapes within the “thoughts’s eye” (Casey et al 2008).

And what occurs when children try to reproduce a construction from a mannequin or blueprint? Researchers name this structured block play, and it could be notably useful for honing spatial expertise. After a bunch of 8-year-olds participated in simply 5, 30-minute periods of structured block play, they confirmed enhancements in psychological rotation.

As well as, mind scans revealed modifications in the best way their brains processed spatial data. Youngsters in a management group did not exhibit these modifications (Newman et al 2016). Learn extra about it right here.

Structured block play might improve cognitive flexibility

“Cognitive flexibility” is the flexibility to rapidly shift your focus from one related stimulus to a different. It’s clearly vital for achievement at school, however some children wrestle with it, and sure environmental elements — like low socioeconomic standing — put kids at increased danger for developmental delays.

Can toy blocks assist? Perhaps. In an experiment on 69 preschoolers, Sara Schmitt and her colleagues randomly assigned some of the children to interact in every day periods of structured block play. The duties have been comparatively easy at first (e.g., “construct a tower”). Then, as children turned extra conversant in the supplies, they got extra demanding duties (e.g., “copy the construction you see on this image”).

The researchers didn’t observe any dramatic modifications over time. However by the top of examine, the youngsters who’d participated in structured block play confirmed larger enhancements in cognitive flexibility in contrast with children in a management group. And the impact was strongest for kids from households of decrease socioeconomic standing (Schmitt et al 2018).

Toy blocks are linked with language growth

May children additionally get a language enhance from development play? That appears doable. As an example, there may be proof that very younger kids develop higher language expertise after they have interaction in common block play. In a examine sponsored by MEGA Bloks®, researchers gave blocks to middle- and low-income toddlers in america (Christakis et al 2007). The youngsters ranged in age from 1.5 to 2.5 years, and have been randomly assigned to one among two remedies:

  • Youngsters within the therapy group obtained two units of MEGA Bloks® – 80 plastic interlocking blocks and a set of specialty blocks, together with vehicles and folks–firstly of the examine. The mother and father of those toddlers got directions for encouraging block play.
  • Youngsters within the management group did not get blocks till the top of the examine. The mother and father of those children obtained no directions about block play.

Dad and mom in each teams have been requested to maintain time diaries of their kids’s actions. Dad and mom weren’t advised the true objective of the examine–solely that their children have been a part of a examine of kid time use.

After six months, every mother or father accomplished a follow-up interview that included an evaluation of the kid’s verbal capacity (the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Improvement Inventories). The outcomes? Youngsters within the group assigned to play with blocks

  • scored increased on parent-reported checks of vocabulary, grammar, and verbal comprehension, and
  • confirmed a non-significant pattern in direction of watching much less TV.

It’s not clear why block play had this impact. One chance is that the youngsters didn’t actually differ in spite of everything — it was merely that oldsters within the therapy group perceived larger language competence of their kids. Encouraging block play may need motivated them to pay extra consideration to their toddlers’ growth, main them to note extra indicators of verbal progress.

However it’s additionally believable that oldsters within the therapy group spent extra time speaking with their kids, which may clarify the language positive factors. In any case, kids be taught to speak by partaking in a lot of one-on-one conversations with different individuals. In assist of this concept, researchers in China discovered that block play amongst preschoolers led to larger language positive factors when children have been inspired to talk about, plan, and construct buildings collectively (Cai et al 2022).

Lastly, there may be proof that youngsters develop an enriched understanding of spatial vocabulary (phrases like “beneath”, “inside”, and “edge”) after we speak with them about spatial relationships. In a single experiment, researchers instructed moms to make use of related spatial language as they performed with their 5-year-old kids, and the hassle made a distinction: Youngsters uncovered to this spatial speak have been extra doubtless to make use of spatial language themselves (Boriello and Liben 2018).

Toy blocks can stimulate divergent, artistic considering

Psychologists wish to distinction modes of considering — convergent and divergent. Convergent considering is what we follow after we purpose in line with strict guidelines or logical ideas, often in quest of the one, “right” resolution. Against this, divergent considering is extra versatile, and applicable for conditions the place there are mutiple options to an issue (Acar and Runco 2014). Block play can contain convergent problem-solving (as when a toddler is challenged to breed a particular construction from a mannequin or diagram). However when children are free to create their very own designs, it’s an train in divergent considering, and this may occasionally assist children develop stronger artistic expertise. 

For instance, years in the past, researchers offered 64 preschoolers with a set of chunky, block-like foam items. Half of the children have been randomly assigned to play with these items in a convergent means (becoming them, like puzzle items, into exactly cut-out openings). The opposite half have been assigned to make use of the froth items in divergent block play.

After simply three temporary play periods, the youngsters have been offered with divergent duties to finish, and the children who had beforehand engaged in divergent block play tackled these duties with extra divergent considering and creativity (Pepler and Ross 1981).

Extra just lately, a smaller examine of 33 main college kids examined the consequences of weekly, two-hour periods of development play. In every session, college students (aged 6) have been coached to develop their very own, imaginative designs utilizing LEGO ™ bricks — divergent drawback fixing. Additionally they spent a portion of every session utilizing the blocks in a structured math lesson. In the meantime, kids randomly assigned to a management group obtained math classes that didn’t function constructing blocks in any respect.

The researchers gave all the youngsters a battery of cognitive checks earlier than the intervention started, after which re-evaluated them on the finish of the college 12 months. What occurred?

Whereas creativity and divergent considering scores didn’t change for teenagers within the management group, they improved considerably for kids in block play group. Furthermore, the children who’d obtained block play periods skilled a lot greater positive factors in arithmetic achievement and spatial visualization (Pirrone et al 2018).

Youngsters who’re expert with toy blocks are inclined to change into higher mathematicians

There’s a connection between block play and arithmetic. For instance, quite a few research have revealed hyperlinks between a toddler’s capacity to recreate particular buildings and his or her present mathematical expertise (Verdine et al 2013; Oostermejier et al 2014; Richardson et al 2014; Bower et al 2020). As well as, a examine within the Netherlands discovered that sixth grade college students who spent extra free time in development play carried out higher on a check of arithmetic phrase issues (Oostermejier et al 2014).

Does this imply taking part in with toy blocks causes long-term enhancements in mathematical capacity? Not essentially. However it’s attention-grabbing to notice that the complexity of a kid’s LEGO ™ play on the age of 4 years has long-term predictive energy: Extra advanced play through the preschool years has been correlated with increased arithmetic achievement in highschool, even after controlling for a kid’s IQ (Wolfgang et al 2001; 2003).

And experimental research point out that kids can enhance math expertise by partaking in sure sorts of block play.

As an example, as we’ve already talked about within the previous part, the experimental examine utilizing LEGO ™ bricks yielded giant results in mathematical achievement (Pirrone et al 2018), maybe as a result of the intervention included many, express, block-supported math classes. As well as, the examine of preschoolers led by Sara Schmitt discovered proof that structured block play improved mathematical capacity in a subset of the youngsters examined – these from properties of decrease socioeconomic standing (Schmitt et al 2018).

And, most just lately, Sharlene Newman and her colleagues examined the consequences of development play on arithmetic expertise in 8-year-olds. Forty-three children have been randomly assigned to interact in both free block play or structured block play, utilizing blocks from an academic recreation known as “Blocks Rock!”.

Youngsters within the free block play situation didn’t expertise any notable modifications, however the story was totally different for structured block play. After structured block play, kids “confirmed vital enhancements in each addition and subtraction efficiency” (Newman et al 2021). As well as, fMRI imaging (mind scans) revealed that these kids skilled elevated instant boosts in activation in mind areas related to arithmetic processing and reminiscence (Newman et al 2021).

Cooperative development play helps children enhance social expertise

Analysis means that children change into friendlier and extra socially-savvy after they work on cooperative development tasks. For instance, in research of kids with autism, children who attended play group periods with toy blocks made larger social enhancements than did children who have been coached within the social use of language (Owens et al 2008; Legoff and Sherman 2006). And analysis on normally-developing children means that children who work on cooperative tasks kind higher-quality friendships (Roseth et al 2009).

Development play helps children develop engineering expertise

It’s straightforward to see how development play may educate invaluable classes about structure and engineering. Builders who create small-scale buildings should address the identical legal guidelines of physics that constrain the design of bridges and cathedrals.

That’s why engineers and scientists construct bodily fashions: It helps them check and discover their concepts. Furthermore, it seems that college students be taught finest about bodily forces after they expertise them first-hand (Hayes and Kraemer 2017). So if we wish children to develop an intuitive grasp of mechanical forces — just like the forces of stress and compression — development play presents wonderful studying alternatives.  

LEGO ™ and MEGA Bloks ™ attraction to many aspiring engineers, however I additionally like the straightforward, wood crops which you should purchase by way of these hyperlinks on Amazon: KEVA Contraptions Plank Set, and KAPLA 200 Blocks Natural Unfinished Wood Pine Planks with Storage Bin and Guide Book. (Any purchases made utilizing these hyperlinks will earn a fee for Parenting Science.)

These techniques of similar planks have been featured as common, hands-on displays in lots of science and youngsters’s museums. However beware — constructing with them requires some dexterity, endurance, and good humor. They topple simply, and will not be applicable for youthful kids who’re nonetheless growing these expertise.

Six ideas: Getting probably the most out of your toy blocks

Tip #1: Have interaction younger kids by taking part your self — and fascinating them in spatial speak

The analysis above means that children get extra from block play when somebody demonstrates find out how to construct with them. Youngsters additionally profit after we speak with them about spatial concepts. As you talk about constructing, use spatial vocabulary like “on, “above,” “underneath”, “beneath,” “inside,” “exterior”, “subsequent to”, and “via.”

Tip #2: Encourage cooperative constructing tasks

Youthful kids typically need assistance breaking the ice, so play the a part of a celebration host to get joint constructing tasks began.

Tip #3: Problem children with particular constructing duties

Free-wheeling block play is vital. However, as we’ve seen, it’s doubtless that children additionally reap particular advantages from attempting to match a construction to a template. Even 3-year-olds could also be prepared to do that…for those who keep on with quite simple buildings involving solely two or three blocks (Verdine et al 2014). To get began, create a mannequin with blocks on your little one to breed. As your little one will get older and extra expert, she or he can attempt to construct utilizing photos or diagrams.

Tip #4: Keep in mind that fantasy is a invaluable facet of play — even play with blocks

Development play appears so clearly mechanical. It’s straightforward to suppose solely of the event of sensible engineering expertise. However children additionally profit from fantasy and make-believe. For instance, experiments recommend that children change into extra artistic and creative when they’re uncovered to tales about magic (Subbotsky et al 2010). And inspiring preschoolers to interact in imaginative, fantastical, fake play might assist them develop higher government operate expertise, like impulse management (Thibodeau et al 2016). So in case your little one’s block-play appears centered extra on fantasy than engineering, she or he continues to be reaping vital cognitive advantages.

Tip #5: Stimulate curiosity in development by offering kids with character toys and different equipment

Is your little one a reluctant builder? Take a cue from the experiment on language expertise in toddlers: The researchers didn’t simply give children toy blocks. Additionally they offered kids with appropriately-scaled accent toys, like individuals and vehicles. Such toys give children concepts for development tasks (e.g., a barn for a toy cow) and encourage fake play.

Tip #6: Mix block play with story-time

Researcher Janie Heisner used toy blocks and block- equipment for example components of the tales she learn to children in a preschool (Heisner 2005). After every story, the children got entry to the props. This tactic appeared to extend fake play. It additionally gave children concepts for issues to construct.

Extra studying

Do development toys encourage children pursue careers in science, know-how, math, or engineering? Learn extra about toy blocks and STEM expertise. And for extra evidence-based details about the worth of play, see this information to instructional toys and video games.

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picture of father and son taking part in with blocks by fizkes /istock

Content material of “Why Toy Blocks Rock” final modified 12/2/2022. Parts of this textual content derive from an earlier model of this text, written by the identical writer.