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Block play has been around for a very long time and wooden blocks are a staple of preschool equipment. These days, children at home enjoy wooden blocks, but also Lincoln Logs, Lego, and other building toys. Have you ever wondered why block play seems so interesting? What do kids get out of it?

A study published this month in the journal Child Development found that block play develops children’s spatial reasoning ability, even in children as young as three. As you might remember, spatial reasoning is a key element in intelligence tests. Those puzzles about rotating figures, deciding what pieces would fit into an irregular shape, and even finding the example that is the same as another from a set of very similar possibilities – these are all tests of spatial reasoning and they are all indicators of higher-level thinking skill.

In addition to just increasing brain power, playing with blocks of all sorts increases children’s math ability. They master concepts of shape and size, determine relationships between blocks (“which is under another?”) and solve spatial problems as part of building structures.

In one experiment, three-year-old children were asked to use Duplo sized Legos to recreate a model shape. Six of these tasks ranged in difficulty from “easy” to “tricky.” Just about all the children were able to duplicate a model that required only two pieces. But only children whose parents reported more block play at home and more conversation at home about block play were able to recreate the most difficult models.

The take-aways from this study are obvious:

  1. Provide your child with blocks, Lego, puzzles, and other hands-on toys requiring development of spatial relations. Notice that, while video games are often touted as means of developing spatial relations skill, hands-on play with “real” blocks should come first.
  2. Remember that blocks are not “boy toys.” Girls, who may have been discouraged in years past from playing with blocks, should build with blocks too. Last I checked, girls are as smart as boys and need the same opportunities to learn too.
  3. Talk about spatial relations with your child. Use words like “between,” “under,” “beside,” and so forth when you play together with blocks and in other situations throughout the day.
  4. Start now. The three-year-olds in the study were demonstrating what they had learned in their first few years of life. Find block toys that are safe for small children and get down on the floor and play.

Parents often think of math as a “school skill.” This study demonstrates once again that what is learned in school builds on what children have learned already at home. Parents are a child’s first teachers and, happily, part of that teaching includes playing with blocks.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.