Block play as an enduring, powerful toy  

Associate Professor Kym Simoncini shares research and findings ahead of her masterclass ‘STEM in the early years: We can all do STEM’ at the ECA National Conference from 5-8 October 2022.  If you’re interested in seeing Kym present as part of the conference program, you can purchase a virtual ticket.  

The image was sourced from iStock.

Despite the advances in gadgets and devices, blocks should still be at the top of the toy list for children.  

Many toys are marketed as giving children the very best start by purchasing the latest technology. But let’s not forget about the humble block. Blocks have been part of children’s play for a long time, yet there’s still no other toy that compares in promoting all areas of children’s development. Any early childhood educator can easily identify all the areas block play develops including fine motor, social, language and cognitive skills.  

Much of the reason blocks are such enduring toys is due to the fact they’re “loose parts”. That is, they can be moved, arranged, combined, taken apart, and put back together in any number of ways.  

As children experiment by stacking, building, or balancing with blocks, they need to share, respect construction by their peers, ask for desired blocks and describe what they are creating. Perhaps more importantly, children develop problem-solving skills, creativity and imagination in creating their masterpieces. Another key skill is persistence as they attempt new builds.  

Blocks and spatial reasoning 

Less well-known is that blocks also foster spatial reasoning. Spatial reasoning is the ability to mentally manipulate objects or to think in a way that relates to space and the position, area, and size of things within it. We use spatial reasoning skills in everyday life when we read maps, pack the car for holidays, assemble flat-pack furniture or cut cake into equal slices.  

Spatial reasoning skills are linked to mathematics skills. Children who have good spatial skills tend to have better maths skills. Many people are unaware of the research, but early mathematics skills are a better predictor of later school success than either early reading or social-emotional skills. Block play helps children understand many mathematical concepts in number, measurement and geometry. During block play children count, measure, estimate, pattern, transform, and learn about symmetry.  

Perhaps most surprising to readers will be the research  shows spatial reasoning skills are the best predictor of whether children will end up in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) related career. Spatial skills are especially important in STEM related jobs where people are required, for example, to create or read X-ray and ultrasound imaging, engineering and architectural designs, or cross sections of heating and plumbing systems. 

Blocks also help develop spatial language 

Block play also fosters spatial language. When children play with blocks they hear and produce more words related to spatial reasoning including things such as beneath, above, next to, behind, and so on. 

One study showed block play elicited more spatial language than any other type of play. The other types of play included playing with puppets, playing house, shops, school, zoos, chefs and throwing a ball. 

Other research  looking at spatial language showed the more spatial words children heard, the more spatial words they produced and the better they performed on spatial tasks. In this study, researchers looked at language relating to the spatial features and properties of objects such as the dimensions of objects (such as how big, small, wide, tall), the forms of shapes (for example rectangle, circle, square) and other spatial properties (like bent, pointy, curved).  

Access to blocks  

In 2020, we explored whether access to block play is beneficial to mathematical learning for young children in a middle-low income country. The research, conducted in Papua New Guinea, explored if access to Duplo Lego blocks, across a 7-month period, in early childhood education settings facilitated mathematical learning for children, aged five to seven years. Findings from this exploratory study indicated access to block play had the potential to improve mathematics skills in early childhood settings in Papua New Guinea. Greater access to block play could provide a feasible and affordable intervention to support early mathematical learning with the potential to improve mathematical skills through primary school. 

Different blocks for different ages and stages 

There are a wide variety of choices for blocks for children including MegaBloks for really young children, Duplo, wooden blocks or waffle blocks for preschoolers, and Eco bricks and Lego for older children.  

These age guidelines are suggestions only. Many older children will still play with wooden blocks (my children certainly did!).  

The best way to engage children in block play is to play alongside them and show your interest and enthusiasm in block building. My friend has a ritual of playing half an hour every afternoon with Duplo with her three young boys aged five, three and one. She says it’s her favourite time of day. 

So, when those lists appear in your inbox or on social media, just remember the best toy of all is likely to be missing. 

This article was adapted from a piece originally shared onThe Conversation.  

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The value of play: Play offers children opportunities to engage with the world around them. Being intrinsically motivated and freely chosen, it allows children control over their actions and their learning. Play also helps children develop their self-regulation and problem-solving capacity, and it enriches their vocabulary and language skills.

Kym Simoncini

Kym Simoncini is an Associate Professor at the University of Canberra. Her research focuses on play, family learning and teacher professional development. She was part of the Early Learning STEM Australia project and developed the Early Childhood STEM Habits of Mind to facilitate a shared language for children and adults.

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