What’s your first memory of using your toy blocks in a creative way? Did you build a castle, a garage, the perfect house, or just a wall to protect your own space? When I was five years old, I loaded blocks into my little red wagon, and then I lined up my friends to watch a parade. Having just returned from Mardi Gras in New Orleans, I imagined my wagon was a float, and my large wooden blocks were the trinkets and beads thrown to spectators. Fortunately, no injuries were recorded as my friends caught the blocks whenever my aim was good enough. How did my small friends become coordinated enough to be able to catch the blocks? By playing with blocks, of course!
It’s surprising how much a child can learn from simple blocks: weight, balance, how things work, and mathematical concepts, to name a few. Both large and small muscles are used as a child grasps a small block, maneuvers a large block into place, and carefully steps around the creation. Who knows, perhaps the blocks had something to do with my friend Jimmy becoming an architect and my playmate Sherry, a mathematician.
Back to Basics
In this day of elaborate Lego block creations, computer building with Minecraft blocks, as well as alphabet blocks that speak and sing a song, it’s easy to get distracted by all the lights, bells, and whistles. Somehow my friends and I managed to play and learn without this modern technology. Your first blocks may have been wooden, like mine – or perhaps foam, plastic, or cardboard.
Children’s brains develop and make new connections as they touch, feel, and observe how things work in the world. Children do not learn how to play soccer by clicking a mouse or swiping a screen in a game of computer soccer. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education has been a current focus of school curriculums. Especially for the child younger than six, this means learning through movement and manipulation in order to make discoveries and understand how things work. Basic blocks are perfect for the job.
Physical, Social, and Intellectual Benefits
Physically, blocks provide children with opportunities to develop both large and small muscles. As children lift, hold, and build with blocks, their skills and strength increase right along with their eye-hand coordination. Two-year-olds begin to see and figure out what block size or shape will fit where and gain an awareness of the concepts of balance, weight, and perspective – even if the terms themselves have yet to be formally introduced.
Almost every traditional pre-school has a “block corner” with multiple shapes and sizes of blocks that can be used by several children at a time. It’s not unusual to see children building together, the older ones adding accessories (toy cars, furniture, small figures, etc.) to the village. Children develop social skills while working cooperatively.
The intellectual and creative benefits of this basic toy are endless. Vocabulary is expanded as children identify color, shape, and weight. Children learn math and science concepts, sometimes unconsciously. Gravity, principles of geometry, and balance are learned as children experiment with these concrete objects. As they design structures and create scenarios, children use their knowledge and imaginations to invent something new and unique, while building upon their own experiences for inspiration.
The Cylinder Blocks, Pink Tower, Brown Stair, and Red Rods are the blocks of the Montessori early childhood classroom. Maria Montessori realized the value of what children can learn from seemingly simple, wooden items. She created these beautiful, mathematically-precise Sensorial materials after observing that young children learn through movement and their senses, not with their intellect alone.
For example, two- and three-year-olds are introduced to the Pink Tower which is composed of ten wooden cubes painted pink, measuring from 1 cm to 10 cm. Children not only feel the different weights and sizes as they carry each cube, but also figure out how to build a tower of graduated-sized cubes. The classroom is filled with other similar materials with which to make discoveries.
So, perhaps you’ll join your child and go back to the basics – building with blocks. See what fun you’ll have playing together while you observe all the things your child is learning.
—by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.