Building with blocks, building skills and memories

Child building with wooden unit blocksI still have the wooden unit blocks that were central to many of my childhood play scenarios. The wooden blocks did not stick or snap together so we had to consider balance and how to make a sturdy base to support our structures. They were the materials we used to make models—building beds and shelter for our dolls, walls to separate MY space from YOUR space, and paths around our wooden block village. Making and using models is one of the Next Generation Science Standards essential science and engineering practices, and the NGSS K-2 Engineering Design performance expectation K-2-ETS1-2, using a model to illustrate how form helps an object function. Models can be sketches, drawings, or physical models. 

When young children play with blocks, teachers have many opportunities to support the children’s language development and mathematical skills, and strengthen their spatial abilities. The book Creative Block Play: A Comprehensive Guide to Learning through Building by Rosanne Hansel (Redleaf 2016) provides guidance on how to understand what children learn through building with blocks and strategies to increase the learning opportunities in the “block area.” 

A selection of wooden unit block shapesWooden unit blocks have been a staple in early childhood programs since they were designed in 1913 by educator Caroline Pratt (Hewitt, 2001) with a single rectangular prism unit block having the proportions 1:2:4, and measuring 1-3/8 by 2-3/4 by 5-1/2 inches, and many other shapes based on this unit. They meet the needs of children to learn through play and the needs of educators for materials that address many areas of the curriculum and can survive years of use by children. A set of 300-400 quality wooden unit blocks will provide hours of learning for generations of children and costs about the same as 2-4 tablets. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every early childhood program had both these forms of technology? 

Here’s an example of how one teacher strengthened a child’s math and problem-solving skills while supporting his developing self regulation.

Jeremiah was still adding blocks to his “house” structure when it was time for breakfast. Knowing that children often need help making transitions, Ms Carrie posed a problem to those in the block area: “You may put away the blocks you are working with, or you may move your structure out of the way so there will be room for circle time later.” “How can I move it?” asked Jeremiah. Ms Carrie counted the blocks on one side, saying, “You have 1, 2, 3, 4 blocks on this side wall of your house and we can rebuild this wall right over here.” She helped him carefully move and rebuild that wall. “Which shapes did you use for the roof up on top of the walls? How many blocks did you use for the opposite wall?” she asked as they counted, noted the position and rebuilt the house in a new location.

Moving and rebuilding the house structure, together with a teacher, also supported Jeremiah in learning vocabulary (side, roof, rebuild, opposite) and developing spatial ability to “translate” (move a shape without rotating it) and his “part-whole integration” (knowing how parts fit together to form a whole). 

Do you have a favorite block-building memory? How can you support young children in making their own memories as they play with blocks?

Hewitt, K (2001). Blocks as a tool for learning: Historical and contemporary perspectives. Young Children 56(1): 6-13. Retrieved from

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2 Responses to Building with blocks, building skills and memories

  1. Mary Shane says:

    I have used Legos in class, and I think using wooden blocks would be a great way to have students design a solution to a transpiration problem and then modify it. Sometimes the simplest materials work the best. Thanks for the great idea.

  2. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    Mary, I like to use Legos in the classroom too, once children are past putting things in their mouth to explore them. The loose pieces that are not part of a kit are used for whatever purpose the children plan.

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