Sneak peek: The benefits of block play simple but they build real cognitive skills. Some insights into how to encourage block play in toddlers.
I recently put together a new bookshelf for my office. You know the ones that come in pieces from IKEA or Walmart and you have to assemble yourself. The instructions are heavy on pictures and light on words…not my vibe. They often include not-so-helpful words like “snap” or “click” which, in my experience, hardly ever happen in real life. About 2 pages in, I called in my 10-year-old son to help. Even at his age, he has better spatial skills than me. Much of this I give credit to genetics (his dad is an engineer) and him utilizing pretty much every type of block play for toddlers when he was younger.
One time I remember he had been visiting my parents’ farm and was fascinated by all the farm equipment. He wanted desperately to have a toy combine to harvest his pretend corn. We didn’t have a toy combine so I suggested we make one out of Duplos. He was reluctant at first, but soon (with a little help from me) we had created a structure that resembled a combine. Now, if the average person had looked at this creation, they probably would not have seen a combine. But it worked for him and his toddler imagination. He combined corn all day and even carried the creation with him in the car as we ran errands.
You’ve probably heard me say this before, but this is why PLAY is the engine of learning.
A key component of toddler development (and beyond) is developing spatial understanding. Through all those hours of block play in toddlerhood, he developed some pretty amazing spatial skills. Surprise! Research backs up this experience.
Benefits of Block Play
Emerging from the study of child development there are now dozens of studies showing the cognitive benefits of block play for kids. Here are just a few highlights:
- one study showed that kids (ages 4-7) who played frequently with blocks and puzzles (more than 6 times per week) had better scores on tests of spatial ability
- another study found that kids who played block-building games (as compared to word games) had better spatial abilities. This study actually included brain scans in which researchers could see the areas of the brain for motor and spatial abilities “activate” in the child using the block-building games.
This research is not really surprising when you consider the skills involved in block play. Much like my furniture assembly task, block-building involves a lot of spatial reasoning and being able to imagine the rotation of 3-dimensional objects in space.
Why is Block Play Important for Toddlers?
While my 10-year-old has always been a big fan of block play, my younger son (age 6) has been slower to come around to the idea. He hasn’t taken to Legos with the same ferocity as his big brother. Given the research on the benefits of block play in early childhood, however, I’ve persisted.
Gradually, he has been coming around to different ways of playing with blocks and spatial toys. For example, we received a competitive block-building game called Build or Boom as a gift. He really took to this because it included a bit of competition and a way to “explode” another person’s creation. Not my idea of the most cooperation-building toy, but he liked it.
Fostering a love of block play for toddlers is worth pursuing. For example, in one study of toddlers, researchers found differences in kids’ spatial abilities and early math skills as early as 3 years of age, based on their experience with block play and puzzles. 3-year-olds who had more playtime with blocks and puzzles rated higher on spatial and early math skills, which can have implications for later STEM-related skills.
This is not to say that you should force your toddlers or preschoolers to play with blocks, but trying to make them available as an option for play is helpful. If your child is reluctant, like my son, then offering some new ideas for ways to play with blocks could help.
“Outside the Box” Ideas for Block Play
If your toddler isn’t keen on block-play, consider some fun, new ways to incorporate blocks into their play:
- use very large blocks (like these) to build forts, castles or pyramids
- have block-building challenges in which kids create new block creations in a set time. This is the block-building challenge game used in at least one of the research studies: Blocks Rock!
- use lettered blocks to create their name or fun words
- use blocks with characters on them to foster pretend play
- add marbles or balls to the mix with blocks to create marbles runs or paths (once kids are out of the “put everything in their mouth” stage)
So the next time your toddler (or older child) says, “I’m bored” pull out those long-forgotten blocks that are probably buried at the bottom of the toy box and get building. You’ll thank me later when your child can build your next piece of IKEA furniture for you!
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