Very few toys, even in their simplest form, offer the same advantages blocks do, from emotional growth and resilience, to art and visual-spatial practice, to the more obvious engineering aspects. Research confirms what kids, parents, and teachers have known for centuries: playing with building blocks is not only fun, it’s also really, really good for you. Blocks, though deceptively simple, are perhaps the most versatile toy ever conceived.
In her introduction to The Block Book, Harriet M. Johnson relates a story that probably sounds familiar: “Toy makers have put blocks on the market for many long years, decorating them with letters of the alphabet in an attempt to sneak something ‘useful’ into a child’s play. But young children usually ignored the letters and piled the blocks” (Hirsh, p. 9). The fact that young children, not yet reading, would ignore the letters on the blocks should come as no surprise—kids want to play!
Blocks don’t need anything academic “snuck in.” They already offer so much without attempts to dress them up. Kids approach blocks in both common ways (stacking, building, toppling) and more unique ones: watch five kids play with blocks, and you’ll likely see five different approaches. Innovation in block design isn’t about shoehorning lessons into them, it’s about harnessing kids’ imaginations alongside natural creativity. A good block set shouldn’t come with forced lessons—its designers need to understand what makes blocks fundamentally engaging and provide fresh opportunities for creativity.
Why are blocks so foundational to childhood? The benefits of block play are enormous, and engage a ton of skills.
Here are some of the many benefits of block play
Discover engineering and science fundamentals
When they play with blocks, children get a chance to problem-solve, troubleshoot, and test hypotheses about structure, gravity, and elevation.
Speech and language development
You might not naturally associate block play with speech and language development, but block play actually promotes a lot of oral self-expression, particularly in telling stories about what they’ve built.
Fine motor and hand-eye coordination practice
Stacking blocks on top of one another and fine-tuning a wobbly tower require both fine motor skills and precise hand-eye coordination.
Learn basic math lessons
Pattern recognition, symmetry, fractions, and linear measurement—all elements of math—are an intrinsic part of block play. Young children can also practice basic counting and learn one-to-one correspondence, which means making the connection between the number word (“one”) and the quantity (1).
Social and emotional development
When working with other children, block play offers opportunities to practice cooperation, problem-solving, turn-taking, sharing, and self-advocacy. These skills take a long time to develop, and are a big challenge for young children.
Blocks can be incorporated into pretend play as food, in building a crib for their baby or a house for little animals. Blocks are considered “open ended toys” which mean that they can be played with in many different ways and be combined with other toys.
The stages of block play
Stacking three blocks
Between 16 and 18 months, your toddler may work up to stacking three blocks on top of each other. Building a tower requires your child to line up and balance one block on top of the other, releasing it at just the right time so it doesn’t fall.
Stacking six blocks
Between 18 and 22 months, your toddler might build a four-block tower, then stack up to six blocks a little while later. At this point, building a tower together may become an especially fun challenge, and knocking it over is often a triumphant way to celebrate 🎉
Lining up blocks
At around 23-26 months, your child may start practicing alignment by imitating you if you line up a few blocks end-to-end, in a row. This is an exercise in precision, a brand new skill for your toddler. Imitating your row of blocks (keep it in their view) with their own will take practice and patience.
Creative block play
Once children turn three, their block play becomes more creative and imaginative. They may start building bridges, archways, tunnels, and more elaborate structures. They will also start to sort the blocks and make roads, paths, and patterns. Your child may start to tell stories about what they’re building and act out scenes from their life.
Blocks for all ages
Even as they grow older, children still benefit from playing with blocks. Because blocks have universal appeal, they are perfect for groups of mixed-age kids. They also offer opportunities to practice 21st century skills like collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication. Preschool and early elementary teachers love using blocks for lessons in math, science, and even language arts and social studies.
It’s amazing, isn’t it, how something as deceptively simple as a block set can do so much good work for your child’s brain? There’s a reason blocks have been around for so long—they offer benefits other toys simply don’t.
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