Block Play in the Early Years

Block Play in the Early Years 1080 1080 Nursery Story

We’ve previously looked at how children can learn through play and the benefits associated with transient art. Today we want to explore the humble concept of block play and the myriad benefits associated with it. At a time when technology continues to inch its way into every corner of our lives, it’s easy to let the same happen in nurseries. And while many technological advances have benefited adults in nurseries, it’s natural to want to pull back, to not expose our little ones to too much too soon.

Block play sounds almost too simple, as though it belongs to a different era. With tablets and motorised toys vying for a child’s attention, something as basic as block play can understandably lack appeal. Block play, however, shouldn’t be overlooked so quickly. It can serve as a cornerstone of a child’s development from which they can build a skillset that will empower them as they grow. 

A little background theory…

Famously, Frank Lloyd Wright said his decision to become an architect was shaped by playing with blocks. This is no exaggeration and follows the theories of Friedrich Froebel, a German educator who was the founder of the kindergarten and is still regarded as one of the most influential educational reformers ever. When children engage with block play they are doing more than stacking objects on top of one another.Through block play, children are able to create in a safe space, free of gender rules and even language. They can communicate with each other through ideas, reassemble the past and imagine the future.

“Play is the highest level of child development. It is the spontaneous expression of thought and feeling – an expression which (their) inner life requires.” (Froebel in Lilley 1967:83)

In her book, The Art of Block Building, Harriet Johnson expanded on Froebel’s work and argued there are seven stages to block play which we’ll quickly summarise!

  1. Blocks are carried and not used for construction (applies to very young children under 2)
  2. Building begins! Between the ages of 2-3 children start making rows and experimenting with vertical stacking.
  3. Bridging: children are now constructing two blocks with a space between them.
  4. Enclosures: blocks are placed together to enclose a space.
  5. Patterns and symmetry begin to emerge (ages 3-4).
  6. Between 4-5 children start to name structures often relating to the function of the building. 
  7. At 5+ the buildings often represent structures from real life. Children also demonstrate an urge to partake in dramatic play around the structures. 

Why wood?

There are a host of building blocks available on the market. As very young children are guided by their senses, their experience of stroking wooden blocks and enjoying the shape and feel is something that they do not get from plastic. Wooden blocks, crucially, are free-standing unlike interlocking building materials including Lego and Duplo. Of course, there’s an environmental benefit to be had as you’re not buying plastic and instead using natural, recyclable products. Crucially, though, wood is likely to last much longer and provide a better return on your investment. In our experience wooden blocks will outlast the children as they pass through your early years setting by decades. 

Block Play Benefits

As you can probably already tell, we’re big proponents of block play! For a really quite simple concept it offers children, parents and EYFS educators a host of benefits. At Nursery Story, one of the areas we’ve found block play can really help children is with their self-esteem. As we’ve already mentioned, block play allows children to construct and negotiate. However, it also promotes self-reliance and independence as children spontaneously create and set themselves new challenges as they go.

Historically, block play is also linked to an improvement in:

  • Problem solving – Children learn in a very practical sense what does and doesn’t work and they see the consequences of their decisions play out in front of them. As a result, it can also lead to an upturn in concentration levels and attention span.
  • Science – on a base level children are able to experiment with cause and effect, and test hypotheses. However they’re also introduced to balance, spatial awareness and gravity.
  • Mathematics – It’s no surprise that with all of the shapes and sizes involved in block play that children often see an upturn in maths skills including their ability to count, estimate, measure, and weigh. 
  • Social skills – As a child grows in confidence building with their blocks, they’re increasingly likely to want to share their experiences and explain what they’re trying to achieve which can unlock communication skills and collaborative storytelling. 

In Your EYFS Setting

As you can imagine, setting up block play in your EYFS setting isn’t exactly the most complicated task you’ll ever complete. But, in our experience, it’s worth trying to get the best quality blocks you can. It’s likely a one-time purchase and will pay for itself ten times over. Don’t forget that block sets now cover a whole range of shapes including the base unit block, quadruples, halves, triangles, ramps, cylinders and arches. Investing in a complete set will allow your children to continuously play and experiment without feeling any sense of boredom or over familiarity with the materials. 

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