Blocks for Days: Block Play and Learning

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE and Cindy Green, BSc, RECE. 

Block play is centuries old. Blocks were part of a historical movement that focused on building a child-centred culture that began in the late 1700s (Dietze & Kashin, 2019). There was John Locke (1632-1704), the English philosopher who recommended the use of alphabet blocks for play and learning and helped to popularize them. Then there was Patty Smith Hill (1868 -1946), who was influenced by John Dewey and the progressive educational movement. She was a kindergarten reformer. Her goal was to eliminate the prescribed methods inherent in Froebel’s (1782-1852) manipulatives known as gifts and occupations and replace them with blocks that gave children freedom to play. Her blocks were designed to play with on the floor to encourage children to play cooperatively. The blocks Hill designed are no longer used but her legacy lives on (Wellhousen & Kieff, 2001). Aside from inspiring Caroline Pratt (1857-1954), an educator who was also influenced by John Dewey and the progressive movement there is a fun fact about Smith Hill as the co-author of the “Happy Birthday” song. We love the background story of this iconic song which each of us usually hears at least once a year! Pratt received woodworking training in Sweden. In 1923 she developed a blocks unit system for her experimental classroom at the City and Country School that she helped found in New York City. Smaller than the blocks developed by Smith Hill, these blocks were easier for children to use and worked on a 1:2:4 ratio (Wellhousen & Kieff, 2001). Unit blocks are the ones that we recommend in our block workshops sponsored by Louise Kool and Galt. Unit blocks, due to their mathematical and numerous other affordances should be the foundation of block play but now there are so many other blocks available!

When we began working as early childhood educators, we thought that there were primarily two categories of blocks – tabletop and floor. Tabletop blocks are generally used by one child or by two children who choose to work together. Floor blocks are much larger in size. They generally attract two or more children to work together to create a particular structure. Tabletop blocks, although versatile, are generally used more as indoor blocks, whereas floor blocks are used in both indoor and outdoor spaces (Dietze & Kashin, 2019). While these categories still exist, we are currently experiencing a block renaissance as more and more types of blocks become available. Different types of blocks may have different affordances. We love playing with and exploring the affordances of various block types. Some allow light to flow through, some encourage stacking because of flat edges, and some are reflective. When we were writing the block play module currently being offered by Strive, we landed on 10 block types. We are very excited that after the initial launch of this professional learning module, Blocks Build Bodies and Minds it is being offered again!

We appreciate the support that we have been given by Louise Kool and Galt with the block module and all the workshops that we facilitate on block play. Recently, our friends there shared a wonderful video that illustrates “Outdoor” blocks and features the brand Outlast blocks. We love this video. It is so joyful and reminds us of spring!

What  kinds of blocks have you encountered and are they represented by the 10 types? We would love your input! What new and novel blocks are inspiring block play in your settings? Please comment below or join us on Twitter (Diane and Cindy) and share photos using the hashtag #blockplay. Or post on Instagram (Diane and Cindy)! We love images of children and blocks! Recently, I (Diane) was gifted a set of Metallic Mini Blocks from Canadian Classroom. These amazing blocks are reflective and my grandson, Griffen loves them!

There is so much to learn about block play! Blocks support development, cooperative play and mathematical concepts. Blocks support language and literacy when books, signage and stories about block play are encouraged. We have also looked at block play from the perspective of schema play and have created this list of “Block Play by Schemas”.

The possibilities for schema play during block play increases with the addition of loose parts! We love loose parts and when they are incorporated into block play, magic happens! As an introduction to the block module we include a video taken of us playing with blocks while discussing the history, theory, types and possibilities of blocks. Here is a short version of the video where we discuss loose parts and block play.

We have been inspired by following #blockplay on Twitter and Instagram and engaging with educators taking the block play module. We hope to see you there! Meanwhile, we conclude with the words of Caroline Pratt. While written a century ago, these still resonate today.

3 thoughts on “Blocks for Days: Block Play and Learning

  1. I’m interested in taking your online module about block play, but am curious what credentials this course might apply towards (Washington state’s continuing ed called STARS hours, for example). Sorry if this isn’t the right place to contact you, I didn’t see a spot to ask questions on the Strive website.


    • No problem questions and comments are always welcome! The course is not connected to Washington’s state STAR hours. I don’t know how the continuing education system works in other jurisdictions outside of Ontario, Canada. Is there someone local that you could ask about whether it would qualify?


  2. Pingback: Why Wood? The Benefits of Wooden Toys for Children and their Families! | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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