Early Childhood

Elementary Schools Using Blocks To Build Students’ Skills

By Linda Jacobson — May 24, 2000 7 min read

Few materials have been as important in early-childhood education as blocks.

Piles of these simple, three-dimensional wooden pieces almost always have a special place in the classroom, where young children can build, knock down, and build again.

Most people appreciate that, from very young ages, children develop fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination as they balance one block on top of another.

But some educators have found that blocks can teach far more than just physical skills, and that the early grades are not the time for youngsters to put their blocks away.

When children reach elementary school, blocks can become much more than just tools for free play. They become a tangible piece of the curriculum.

Such is the case at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, a pre-K through 8th grade Jewish school here.

When she founded the school in 1972, Shirley G. Levine felt so strongly about the use of blocks that she dedicated an entire room to the activity.

In the block room, children noisily re-create what they’ve studied in class—not simple structures, but elaborate train stations with snack bars, airports with baggage-claim areas and parking spaces for compact and larger vehicles, and grocery stores with checkout lanes and aisles of canned goods.

‘Flexible and Adaptable’

Caroline Pratt, an early 1900s progressive educator in New York City, vividly described in her 1948 book I Learn From Children how blocks help children learn about the world around them.

“Of all the materials which I had seen offered to children, these blocks ... seemed to me best-suited to children’s purposes,” she wrote. “A simple geometric shape could become any number of things to a child. It could be a truck or a boat or the car of a train. He could build buildings with it from barns to skyscrapers. I could see the children of my as-yet-unborn school constructing a complete community with blocks.”

Pratt’s work at City and Country School, which she founded in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City in 1914, has had a strong influence on early-childhood education, said Salvatore Vascellaro, a faculty member at Bank Street College of Education in New York.”

What [Pratt] wanted was a material that was so flexible and adaptable that children could create their world on a miniature level,” said Mr. Vascellaro, who teaches a course on blocks at the college.

When the adults in his class work with blocks, he said, they are surprised by the “complexity of the architectural problems that come up.” And during workshops that he has conducted for parents, he said, many come “thinking it’s fun, but not all that serious.” When they leave, he added, they are often “impressed with how challenging the materials are.”

Of course, other types of blocks are on the market—foam, cardboard, and various brands of interlocking shapes. But Mr. Vascellaro added that there is something special about the heavy, wooden variety.

“The kids grow to rely on what they can do with that weight, that balance,” he said.

Math, Geography, and More

When Tina Kops’ 2nd graders at Heschel Day School enter the block room, the floor is clear and the blocks are neatly stacked on the shelves that line the room.

Even though they are eager to begin building, their first task is to draw a blueprint of what they will be making. Before they reach that point, the pupils have researched various industries and services.

Minutes later, squares, rectangles, triangles, and arches—essential for building doorways and bridges—stretch from wall to wall. A door to the outside is propped open, and the threshold simulates the spot where the harbor meets the ocean beyond. Tape is put down on the floor to represent a runway.

This small-scale world is an extension of a lesson on chocolate and one of a series of social studies units Ms. Kops has used to teach children about food production. Previously, they studied apple farming, and their structures included an apple-processing plant and a packaging plant.

This time, their product starts at a banana and cacao-bean plantation in South America. Frustrated that they can’t find a picture of a plantation house, the students in charge of building the farm are the last ones to get started. But when they finish, the house and the other buildings are up on stilts to protect them from the moist soil.

Throughout the school year, the youngsters’ block creations typically include an airport, a train station, a harbor, and a market, where the final products are sold. The children learn about transportation and geography when they have to determine the most effective ways to move products from one country to another.

And while the projects are part of the social studies curriculum, math skills are used to measure blocks and estimate the sizes and shapes needed. Reading and writing come into the picture when students make signs and other written materials to adorn their buildings.

But even then, the lessons are not over. Once everything is in place, the children act out the business that is conducted at such places. They also take field trips to see some of the places they’ve constructed.

“I like that they built a harbor that we’re actually going to go to,” pupil David Marias said, referring to his classmates’ version of the Vincent Thomas Bridge at the Port of Los Angeles.

After their structures are complete, the children offer comments and suggestions to one another.

Ms. Kops notes that for the first time this school year, the group working on the train depot built its track throughout the entire development, indicating that each location—the airport, the farm, and the harbor—would need access to the railroad.

The teacher also said she was pleased that the students took an entire hour to work on their buildings. When they first started working with blocks, it took only 20 minutes before they wanted to dig into the cabinets that hold all the miniature people, furniture, train cars, and other accessories, she said.

Lesson in Democracy

Beyond enhancing physical and intellectual development, block- building activities can also teach important interpersonal skills, early- childhood experts say.

“They learn how to live together and help each other,” Ms. Levine said of the youngsters involved. “It’s a microcosm of the democratic process.”

Because there is a limit to the sizes and shapes of blocks available, pupils also learn to negotiate for the blocks they need to complete their work.

Occasionally, problems arise in Ms. Kops’ class.

“They’re making their thing too close to our parking lot,” one little girl, who was building the grocery store, complained about the group working on the train depot.

But Ms. Kops usually tells the boys and girls to find a solution themselves.

Blocks can also be a means of expression for children who are either still learning English or have other language or learning problems, Mr. Vascellaro noted.

Another advantage of working with blocks, Ms. Kops said, is that children at all academic levels can work together.

Block work—it’s not called play at Heschel Day School—is also part of student assessment. While she’s not really concerned with how the final product looks, Ms. Kops is interested in whether the children try to represent the different topics discussed in class, and whether they can explain their work.

As children move through the grades, such skills will only become more important as far as some colleges and universities are concerned.

The fact that some institutions are now asking high school seniors to make robots out of Lego bricks as part of the admissions process made headlines earlier this year. Proponents of the exercise say the challenge gives admissions officers insight into whether students show initiative and possess leadership and communication skills. (“What Happened to Play?,” Feb. 16, 2000.)

Growing Up

Blocks help younger children bring the world down to their level. But by the time they are about 8 years old, children typically spend less time using miniature people for dramatic play and are more likely to act out scenes themselves, Mr. Vascellaro said.

At Heschel, they also make a similar transition from working with existing materials to actually constructing items with wood, using saws and other tools. Many of the pieces they make are used by the younger children in their block cities.

“Concrete experience is so valuable,” Ms. Levine said about the use of blocks. “We often teach in one dimension, and children don’t learn that way.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2000 edition of Education Week as Elementary Schools Using Blocks To Build Students’ Skills

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