From toddlers stacking alphabet blocks to grown-ups creating Hogwarts out of Legos, everyone loves blocks! And blocks boost motor skills and hand-eye coordination; interest in art, math and science; and the pure joy of play.
by Joan M. Thomas
As a child, Cindy Easterling enjoyed playing with large corrugated cardboard building blocks. She also had a set of wooden blocks. Today a successful architect and writer, this resident of Webster Groves, Missouri, incorporates her creative and engineering abilities into her dual profession. Certainly she began to hone the skills needed for her adult professional life when she had great fun experimenting with building blocks during her tender years.
More living proof of how playing with building blocks invigorates an interest in subjects like art, math, and science is Shannon McClintock, of San Diego, California, who was named America's Top Young Scientist of the Year by the Discovery Channel in 2004 when she was 14.
McClintock won the 2004 grand prize in the sixth annual Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge for a project in which she examined how friction between a train and tracks affects fuel use. In her story “I’m Wired for Science” in the March 27, 2005 issue of Parade magazine, McClintock relates that when she was 4 years old, she built arches and ramps with square blocks.
That’s not to say that all children who play with blocks will become architects or scientists. But they will benefit from the physical and mental aspects of the play, and quite possibly be more creative in everything they do.
Jane Kostelc, child development expert and curriculum development manager for Parents As Teachers, says that building blocks are one of the “three B’s” of fun that every child should experience: Blocks, Books and Balls. The trio’s common denominator is that each element is open-ended, allowing children to stretch their imagination.
With blocks, the activity of constructing things using simple forms provides intellectual stimulation and develops fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Moreover, since there is no one solution, the little tyke can continue to find new things to build with blocks long after the newness of puzzles and battery-operated toys wears thin.
A bounty of blocks
Since blocks are made of durable materials, they outlast most other toys. And, as I discovered during a recent visit to LagoonaMagoo Toys at St. Louis Mills in St. Louis, Missouri, there’s an interesting variety of choices in the category of building blocks.
For toddlers, there are the standard cube-shaped blocks, which even very young children can line up or stack. Some blocks come in a wooden cart children can pull.
With blocks of different sizes, kids will begin to recognize spatial relationships by putting the smaller blocks on top. Many typical cubes, adorned with colorful pictures or letters of the alphabet, will stimulate children’s curiosity while acclimating them to a world of diverse images and symbols of communication.
Bigger sets of building blocks come in various shapes. Lagoona Magoo stocks a number of them by Ryan’s Room.
The package for ages 2 and up that holds the most promise for infinite construction possibilities is the 50 Unit Blocks of Fun by IQ Preschool. Made of smoothly sanded and naturally sealed rubber wood, the 50 blocks include shapes like rectangles, arches and triangles.
A multi-colored version of the same set is also available. Jane Kostelc of Parents As Teachers says that color could just be an aesthetic choice, but she adds that a child could discover patterning by organizing the differently hued blocks a certain way.
Magnetized and interlocking blocks
For many of the employees working at LagoonaMagoo, a childhood favorite is the Vehicle Magnetic Blocks. Truly a cool toy, this award-winner by Playwell for ages 18 months and up has 21 pieces that include brightly colored and patterned magnetic blocks and wheels that actually move. Innovative kids can fashion all kinds of wacky vehicles with this novel set.
Kostelc understands why the employees still harbor Vehicle Magnetic Blocks set as a childhood favorite. The sensory experience of feeling the magnetic pull when taking apart and putting together is sure to spark an interest in science.
In the same vein, Kostelc advises not to forget about the interlocking blocks such as Legos. She says that at 18 months children get interested in assembling, disassembling, and reassembling.
My favorite, the Water Blocks, came to my attention when another store employee said that her 1-year-old son has lots of blocks, and though the manufacturer recommends the Water Blocks for children age 3 and up, she said that he plays with these too.
The set of six Water Blocks comes with three half-circles and three squares, each a quarter-inch thick. Colored water safely splashes around within the clear plastic covers surrounded by a smooth wooden frame. While turning a block, one can witness pastel water naturally seeking its own level.
Kostelc sees this as an opportunity for a child to perceive cause and effect. I instantly imagined a number of home decorating schemes using those blocks meant for 3-year-olds.Blocks foster pretend play
The employees also showed me the Deluxe Jumbo Cardboard Blocks by Melissa & Doug. These are probably like the kind on which Cindy Easterling cut her architectural teeth. These blocks come in different sizes and require assembly. With them, children from 18 months to 6 years can build more life-like structures.
With so many different kinds of blocks available, you're sure to find blocks to fit your budget, your parenting styles, and your child's interests and tastes.
Kostelc notes that as kids get older, they like to pretend play. Seeing the Jumbo Cardboard Blocks called to mind my own childhood in Iowa where winter brought lots of snow. With my siblings, I once helped construct a fort using round blocks of snow formed in a small bucket. We defended our snow fortress from imaginary villains for days until it fell victim to the hot rays of the sun.My childhood snow fortress is just one personal example of how building blocks foster imaginative play—and why Kostelc believes that children cannot have too many building blocks. She emphasizes, “You can’t forget the fun factor.” What better for a child’s emotional wellbeing than to just be a kid and have fun? Building blocks can build joyous memories and treasured childhood recollections too.
The author of three books, freelance writer and historian Joan M. Thomas also enjoys writing feature stories and essays on current topics. Born in Carroll, Iowa, she now lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband, Bob, and canine pal, Sasha.