"Kindergarten and first graders express themselves through play. Not play which is merely a pastime, but play which is constructive and leads through progressive stages of relationship-thinking. This kind of play needs free or raw materials which can take the impress of the user. The best of all adaptable materials seems to be blocks."
-Lucy Sprague Mitchell
How are Blocks Used at Lake and Park School?
Camille, Eileen and Morgan shared Lake and Park School's use of blocks at the Northwest Association of Independent Schools annual conference in October. Drawing from the wisdom of progressive educators from the early 20th century, Lake and Park teachers integrate block play throughout each day and across disciplines.
When walking through our classrooms, you'll notice space designated for block play. Time is reserved in the daily schedule for children to work in the block area. Blocks are sorted by size and shape and stored on shelves. Nearby shelves hold accessories that may change along with the children's interests and our thematic studies.
How does block play differ throughout the ages?
Traveling between classrooms and observing block play in action shows how different ages engage with blocks. Through observation and research over the last hundred years, teachers have found that young builders pass through developmental stages when using blocks, similar to those that have been documented for young artists. Below are photos of children at each stage along this continuum.
Images from: Hirsch, Elizabeth S., The Block Book, National Association for the Education of the Young Child, 1984
In the downstairs classrooms, we mostly see children moving through stages 1-4. Children are encouraged to build collaboratively and freely in the block area. They are frequently offered boats, cars and wooden figures to accompany their stories and dramatic play.
After several years of building with blocks in the downstairs classrooms, children move to the Big Room as accomplished builders. Here, children are frequently asked to work collaboratively to build in response to a prompt or question directly related to the school's theme of study. One such provocation might be, "How can you build a car with blocks?"or, "How can you show the story of Raven stealing the light in the blocks?" In the Big Room, children leave structures up throughout the school week and return each afternoon to make adjustments or engage in symbolic dramatic play. Holding time for this each afternoon sends a clear message to children that we value the work they do when they play. This is reaffirmed when they have the opportunity to tell classmates about their work.
When blocks are part of the school culture, children seem to have as much satisfaction putting the blocks away as they have when building. According to Piaget, reversibility is the beginning of logical thinking. A way to observe children's ability to perceive the reverse of their sequential patterns suggests that they take down their structure in reverse of their putting it up. On Fridays, a group of mixed-aged children move through classrooms to tidy the block areas. Older children spend time with a loved material and younger children learn to stack three or four like-sized blocks in a pile to easily move to a shelf.
How Does Block Play Support Academic, Social and Emotional Learning?
The pleasure of blocks stems from the aesthetic experience. It involves the whole person - muscles and sense, intellect and emotion, individual growth and social interaction. Learning results from the imaginative activity, from the need to pose and solve problems. -Elisabeth S. Hirsch, professor of Early Childhood Education at the City College of New York.
At Lake and Park we agree that blocks are the perfect tool for engaging children's hands, minds and imaginations. Engrossed in building with blocks, the child is a mathematician, scientist, architect, stage designer and storyteller. As children build together, they stretch and grow as problem solvers and collaborators.
As children work collaboratively, they learn to confidently initiate their ideas, solve problems, take turns, share, negotiate and compromise. Throughout this process, their language develops and relationships deepen. When they return to their projects day after day, they practice commitment and discipline. As they share their ideas and constructions with the larger class group, their self esteem grows. As they deconstruct towers, bridges, houses and forests, they learn to take responsibility and care for the materials in their space.
As children explore various thematic studies, they recreate their learning in the blocks. During our study of the Silk Road, traders on camel back traveled from town to town in the blocks. When we studied space, a large block rocket ship was boarded by astronauts. After visiting the Central Branch of the Seattle Public Library, children recreated the impressive structure in the blocks, complete with people reading on the top floor. As various groups of children build similar scenes in the blocks, they learn about differing perspectives and experiences of one another.
Skyscrapers of Seattle are connected by an airborne light rail track
In addition to benefiting the emotional and social development of children, blocks serve as a powerful tool for laying the foundation of basic math and geometry. Children count constantly. They identify shapes and consider their attributes and recreate them using other shapes. Triangles fit together to create squares, for example. Children compare lengths, heights and volumes. Over time, they build structures within the same scene to a chosen scale.
Children learn to build with symmetry and in these cases are considering the aesthetic balance and appeal for their construction.
Young children begin to intuit the mathematical relationships of the unit blocks to each other as they seek and find fractional substitutes for different shapes. When one size is no longer available, they compare the attributes of other blocks and explore equivalency.
Through repeated use of these concrete materials, children come to internalize these mathematical concepts. When they are later taught math in a more formal way, the children are given language and symbols for these concepts that they already understand intuitively.
Science is frequently explored in the blocks. Balance and collapse teach the nature of gravity and weight. Ramps and columns can be used to make simple overs and fulcrums; an early step in the teachings of physics. With consecutive days spent in the blocks area, children practice trial and error and over time begin to place blocks with more precision and care, resulting in more stable structures.
Leah and Boden explore gravity and speed with big blocks. After constructing a ramp, they take turns riding a block down the ramp.
Labels help children share the stories that take place in the blocks. At times, a structure in the block area can help a beginning writer generate ideas for a story.
The need to place blocks carefully develops hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Lifting larger blocks and carrying them across a room builds strength and coordination.
Children in the Beginning Room build a house with big blocks; a task requiring planning, an understanding of balance and weight and strength.
Blocks can stand for an indefinite period of time. A structure may be returned to day after day for modifications. Plans can be revised, research integrated. Blocks can be moved and combined and recombined in countless ways making them an accessible medium for exploration and learning at any time of the school day.
Education is not an affair of telling and being told, but an active and constructive process.