Block Play: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

How can teachers use the powerful concept of block play to achieve their educational goals with children of all ages?

What is Block Play?

The process of learning that occurs while children are playing with blocks is known as Block Play. It is a play with open-ended nature and with no set rules.

During block play, young children can be as constructive or imaginative as they like, which makes block play a versatile and useful childhood learning technique, especially for those in the EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage).

Block play was first documented as an early learning strategy during the early 1800s. Nearly 200 years ago, Friedrich Froebel recommended using wooden blocks play to help with child development. Wooden building blocks are easy to play with and they are made of natural materials, which makes them an easy and sustainable means of entertainment for young children.

At Structural Learning, we have developed a methodology that schools are using to design engaging learning experiences. Using our specially designed blocks, teachers are using the tool kit to enhance many aspects of learning. As well as the developmental benefits that we will outline in this article, we have been focusing on the intellectual benefits of providing a physical scaffold within the learning process. Using these durable materials has enabled both primary and secondary schools to enjoy a host of benefits from a basic block. Within this article, we will explore the benefits of building blocks in classrooms and highlight how this new pedagogy has significant implications for the creative development of children.

What are the benefits of block play in early childhood development?

There are many benefits of building play for young children and toddlers. Blocks are an excellent way to introduce young children to various concepts. For example, transportation, problem-solving, pattern-making, representations, building, and many more. As children grow up, especially between the ages of 2 and 5, they would gradually extend their learning and develop more complex techniques of block play such as children might want to act out detailed story-telling or role-playing using the block structures they make out of the blocks. Or, they may create free-standing structures or symmetrical patterns with blocks. Hence, block play can provide physical benefits as well as improve children’s development and cognitive skills in many ways.

One of the recent research projects we have been involved in has highlighted how logical thinking skills can be enhanced using our block building method. Language skills were also cited as a key area of progression. The impacts the language development run in parallel to the intellectual development shown by the young people involved in the study. This area known as Oracy highlights the link between thinking and talking. Being playful with a collaborative tool enabled students to try out different ideas and explore a list of learning possibilities. As the students built their way to understanding they articulated their ideas to one another. This learning experience meant that the development of language skills was an integral part of the activity.

Students engaged in block play
Students engaged in block play

What are some of the ways block play can act as a great teaching tool?

Block play has been proved to be a great teaching tool for the following areas of development:

  • Mathematical Skills: Block play may help to develop children's logical thinking and mathematical skills. It enables children to learn more about 3D shapes of different sizes. Children may also explore sequencing and counting as they add or remove blocks from their block towers. Parents and teachers may choose from a variety of activity ideas to help children to learn fractions, symmetry, patterns and measurements. Block play is an exceptionally versatile technique that can be used to teach any topic of the EYFS Mathematics curriculum.
  • Language and Communication Skills: During block playing with other block players, children get a great opportunity to help develop their social interaction, language skills and communication skills. When children engage in block playing conversations to language development about the structure of the blocks and what their block structure is meant to represent. Correspondence through Block Play enhance children's vocabulary and help them to include more details in their conversation such as size, shape, and position of blocks.
  • Storytelling and Creativity: Experiences through Block Play offer countless opportunities for creativity, design and word-building. During block play, children may learn to find creative solutions to problems as they develop block structures and towers to ensure they’re functional or sturdy. For instance, how many blocks did the tower have before it fell over, and how children may change that? Children can also show their creativity by creating whatever patterns, designs, or structures they like. And children can use these creations for fun-filled role-playing and storytelling scenarios.
  • Social, Personal and Emotional Development: Block play can enhance attention spans in children, as they continue to focus on constructive block building tasks for longer durations. Building block structures with the help of other children also enable children to learn to collaborate with other people. Block play provides a great sense of achievement in children and they also learn to share materials and wait for their turn.
  • Physical Development: Block play involves both gross motor skills and fine motor skills, which makes it great for the physical development aims of children in EYFS. One of the main benefits of Block Play is that children may learn to use precise finger movements. Block play may improve hand-eye coordination in children. Also, they may learn to create delicate structures depending upon the size of the blocks or they may practice their carrying, lifting, or stretching skills to make larger structures.

Structuring ideas with block play
Structuring ideas with block play

What are the different stages of block play?

Young children pass through various developmental stages during block play. These stages were first identified in 1933 by Harriet Johnson. The stages of block play mainly include:

  1. Carrying: At first, toddlers play with a basic block by carrying it around, without building anything as yet.
  2. Stacking: Next, children start stacking blocks beside or on top of other blocks in horizontal or vertical lines.
  3. Bridging: This is the Bridging Stage where the children create bridges and place a longer block on top of two smaller blocks with a hole in the centre.
  4. Enclosures - Children start using 4 or more blocks to construct a rectangular or square enclosed space. Then, they will experiment with building enclosures of various sizes and shapes, such as round enclosures, or numerous enclosures attached together.
  5. Patterns and Symmetry: Most of the children start to create patterns with blocks between the ages of three and four. They may also show symmetry in their constructions.
  6. Early Representation: At this step, children perform block constructions to illustrate other things, for instance, they might construct a tower or house and communicate this piece of information to other children or an adult. Children might name their creations and use their names for the dramatic play.
  7. Later Representation: This is the final step, which is characterized by the complexity of block play. At this stage, children's block play becomes more complex. Children's creations may contain many details, such as constructing an imaginary farmyard or fire station. These creations may be inspired by the stories or real-life buildings that children enjoy. Children's dramatic play may also become more complex and long-lasting. After reaching this stage, parents or teachers may use Building Challenge Cards to extend their learning and encourage children's block play.

Block play for literacy
Block play for literacy


Integrating block play into your classroom

Building blocks need to be a staple material in a block corner of each classroom. Parents and childhood educators may choose the most suitable variety from many types of blocks for children. Some famous varieties of award-winning blocks include foam blocks, chalkboard blocks, hollow blocks, magnetic blocks and plastic blocks. These blocks can be used in a variety of shapes, colours, textures, and sizes. Block play sessions can give hours of open-ended play and fun for the block players. Block play journey provides an excellent way for young children to boost fine and gross motor skills, learn science concepts like balance and weight and work in groups to build a variety of complex structures.

If your school is interested in exploring the creative benefits of embracing our block building methodology then we encourage you to get in contact with us. Even if you don't have the blocks or the advanced professional knowledge, there is nothing stopping teachers from all phases of education utilising everyday construction materials to achieve your learning goals. The impact on language development is significant and when used purposely, this pedagogy can be a powerful tool for curriculum delivery. 

Number work using blocks
Number work using blocks