Blocks, Blocks and more Blocks: Essential Materials for Play and Learning

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. Building on my last blog post – The Back to Basics Conundrum in Early Learning: Reflecting on the Past to Move us Forward this post is about one of the most basic and essential elements of early childhood education … BLOCKS! Blocks can be defined as visual-spatial construction play objects; materials that children use when they imagine and construct something in their world (Ness & Farenga, 2016). They can also be defined as fun and engaging! Karyn Wellhousen Tunks author of A Constructivist Approach to Block Play in Early Childhood calls them a source of pleasure and learning. Blocks are a basis of joyful learning for all children. If blocks are basic materials for children’s play and learning experiences, then we have to bring back the basics!

Blocks are actually basic and beyond. They have a long history and a strong connection to the theories of constructivism. Block play is an opportunity to make meaning and learn. Kinzer, Gerhart & Coca (2016) state, “throughout history, humans have utilized natural materials in the environment such as soap, wood pieces, rocks, and boxes to build and test their ideas and inventions” (p. 390). It was Friedrich Froebel, the father of kindergarten that first introduced blocks to an educational setting. It was Caroline Pratt, who invented unit blocks; the most common essential blocks for children. Pratt, founder of City and Country Schools, designed the first unit blocks in 1913. Blocks are tools for learning as Hewett (2001) describes in this article. Children of all ages (and adults too) love engaging with blocks. The second edition of Playing and Learning in Early Childhood Education (Dietze & Kashin, 2018) has a whole chapter on blocks. The following table from that chapter shows the benefits of block play for children from infancy to school age, along with lists of recommended blocks.

Block Play Infancy to School Age

Blocks connect to multiple developmental domains and learning areas such math, science, engineering, language, literacy, dramatic play and more. Blocks work outdoors as well as indoors. Blocks are a form of expression – an opportunity for a child to speak in the language of blocks. Blocks are one of the hundred languages, and a hundred, hundred more. Blocks can be seen developmentally through stages. Harriet Johnson (1867-1934) observed and documented the structures children built with unit blocks and recognized patterns. In 1933 she published a description of seven stages of block play.

Block play stages 1,2,3 and 4Block play stages 5,6,7

Once again I am excited to be working with Cindy Green and partnering with Louise Kool and Galt to present a full-day block extravaganza: Building Minds and Bodies with Blocks: A Day of Professional Learning for the Early Years on April 20th, 2018. In addition to receiving a poster with the stages depicted that can be used on a daily basis to support and encourage block play, participants will learn about the affordances of block play, schema play as it relates to blocks, setting up the block environment and more. The most exciting part is that we get to play with blocks as our good friends at Louise Kool and Galt will provide an ample supply of unit blocks, hollow blocks, outdoor blocks, block accessories and loose parts so that we can see for ourselves that they should be in every early learning environment. Please join us for a day of block play! If you book before March 12th, 2018 you are eligible for the early bird rate! “Blocks have been with us for a long time—and the activity of building even longer”. Blocks have rich potential as a “learning tool for young children to invent and represent ideas” (Hewitt, 2001, p. 12). Blocks are as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago. Blocks are the essential learning tool that children can use in their play.

5 thoughts on “Blocks, Blocks and more Blocks: Essential Materials for Play and Learning

  1. I love the chart and poster of stages of block play you have included in this post. I am a visual learner and value these as part of learning and sharing with educators. It is often the simple (basic), elements of play that children are drawn to in and out of the classroom. Blocks, logs, sticks and rocks can provide hours of learning. Will you be discussing the benefits of cardboard boxes?


  2. Excited to read this post as I have been facilitating a session: Block Play: Numeracy, Science, Literacy and So Much More for early learning educators for a couple of years now. I would like to add the table (with credit of course) from your book to the PPT for the day as it ties in so well with the stages of block play they we already include in the learning for the day.


  3. Pingback: Blocks are Essential for Play and Learning: Every Learning Environment Should Have Many of Them! | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

  4. I love watching my students engage in sustained, engaged block play in my Kindergarten class! Such a wonderful, often underutilized but in my opinion, fundamental object. This year I have seen a wonderful growth in complexity and co-operation and pairings or groups of students who don’t usually “hang out” together. This is the first year that the idea that one person is “the boss” of the structure who decides what can or cannot be added has come to light (or at least the first year I’ve heard about it!). Fascinating stuff!


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