Whether you’re an educator, parent, or simply curious, you may wonder, “What is block play, exactly?” This guide will give you a deeper understanding of how playing with blocks nurtures children’s learning and development.
- Block play is an imaginative, open-ended learning activity where children use blocks to construct and investigate.
- Children develop block-building skills through 7 stages, from pre-building exploration in babies to cooperative and symbolic play at school age.
- Block play supports development in all learning domains and fosters creativity, STEM skills, and social collaboration.
What is Block Play?
Block play is an imaginative, open-ended learning activity where children use blocks to construct and investigate.
Block play is significant because it is a learning activity that supports children’s development in all learning domains. It can foster creativity, problem-solving, motor skills, and spatial awareness while promoting social interaction and language development.
Block materials include blocks and building sets such as wooden unit blocks, magnetic blocks or tiles, plastic interlocking blocks, jumbo blocks, architectural blocks, bristle blocks, and so many more!
Popular blocks and construction building toy brands include Mega Bloks, Lego, Lego Duplos, Magna-Tiles, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and Zoob.
Stages of Block Play
Seven stages of block play match children’s progression in cognitive, physical, and social skills. As children become better at manipulating blocks, they can start using them in more creative ways.
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Stage 1: Prebuilding Exploration
Babies and young toddlers explore the sensory qualities of blocks, such as size, shape, texture, and weight. Playing with blocks looks like touching, mouthing, piling, dropping, banging, and carrying blocks.
Stage 2: Stacks & Rows
Toddlers and young preschoolers will repeatedly explore creating stacks and/or rows of blocks. The repetition helps them figure out cause and effect. The repetition lets children practice balancing, discovering patterns, and problem-solving.
Stage 3: Bridges
Preschoolers will explore how to engineer bridges or tunnels. These are created by balancing a single block on two supporting blocks.
Stage 4: Enclosures
The boundaries of block play expand as preschoolers explore how to make enclosures. Enclosures start with creating a box with four blocks. Soon, enclosures extend farther and into different shapes.
Stage 5: Complex Structures
Children start to combine multiple design elements in their block building. They will use rows, stacks, arches, and enclosures. Toy cars, action figures, construction vehicles, and loose parts may be added to blocks.
Stage 6: Patterns & Symmetry
Once preschoolers and Kindergarteners master the basic elements of block building, they start using more blocks and refining their designs. Children begin paying particular attention to shapes, colors, and patterns to add symmetry and balance to their construction.
Stage 7: Block Structures for Pretend Play
Block play serves a new purpose in the final stage. School-aged children use block structures in symbolic and pretend play. Block building becomes a cooperative activity with planning, negotiating, and rules among peers.
As children learn and play, they can combine several stages of playing with blocks.
- Block play for infants and toddlers looks like carrying, mouthing, holding, dropping, banging, lining up, and stacking blocks.
- Block play in preschool looks like building bridges and enclosures out of blocks, adding props to block play, and implementing patterns and symmetry to block structures.
Block Play Theorists
Early childhood theorists have discussed and shared theories on how playing with blocks influences learning and development.
Friedrich Froebel, the founder of the kindergarten movement, believed that open-ended building with blocks could help children learn and develop investigative skills. Froebel also suggested observing children’s block play could give us insights into their learning.
Jean Piaget’s stages of play theory recognized the role of open-ended materials like blocks in how children develop play skills. Comparing Piaget’s theory with the stages of block play, it is easy to see how they relate. Functional play, for example, looks very similar to prebuilding exploration in block play. When children use block structures for pretend play, they engage in the symbolic/fantasy play that Piaget discusses.
Maria Montessori’s approach emphasizes the importance of basic but quality play materials in the learning environment. Montessori classrooms may include block sets such as cylinder blocks, pink towers, brown stairs, or red rods. Today, if you search “Montessori blocks,” you’ll find many different types of block sets incorrectly advertised as Montessori.
Benefits of Block Play
So, how does playing with blocks help a child’s development? What are children learning through block play, after all?
From nurturing creativity and problem-solving to fostering social interaction and physical abilities, block play supports children’s learning and development.
By engaging in imaginative construction and exploration, children build cognitive skills, language, and social-emotional skills. Playing with blocks strengthens fine motor skills, supports gross motor development, and stimulates the proprioceptive system.
Put simply, playing with blocks has a profound impact on development across all learning domains. Discover more in my post 10 Benefits of Block Play: Unlock the Power of Blocks.
Check out our comprehensive list of block activities for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in my post: The Best Block Play Activities & Environments for Young Children.
This block activity guide will spark creativity, enhance learning, and foster physical development. Discover tips for creating block play environments and showcasing children’s creations.
Observing Block Play
As with all child observations, block play observations should be objective. This means only documenting what is observable, not your interpretation of how the child felt or what they may have been thinking.
Here are some examples:
- Toddler B stacks a block on top of 2 blocks. Then he uses his hand to push the stack of blocks over.
- Preschooler A chooses all the red and blue pattern blocks on the table. She lines them up in an alternating red and blue pattern of 9 blocks.
- Infant C reaches into a basket and grabs a wooden block. When she pulls, the block does not move and is stuck under another block. Infant C uses the other hand to tip the basket. Blocks spill onto C’s lap as she lifts the block out.
- Preschooler A joins Preschooler B in the block center. B. says, “Here,” and hands A. a tree branch block. A. watches B. line up blocks to make an enclosure. A. places their block on top of B.’s blocks.
- Toddler F observes a classmate’s blocks fall and says, “Whoa!”
Block Play Open-Ended Questions
Open-ended questions encourage children to share their thoughts, ideas, and feelings during play—the questions prompt conversation, problem-solving, and planning.
- What story are you making with the blocks?
- Can you tell me more about what you built?
- How did you decide to put blocks like this?
- What do you think will build next?
- You’ve been working hard on this. How are you feeling?
- Is there something else you want to add?
- What are your favorite parts of your block city? Why?
- What do you think would happen if we tried _______?
Curious about the power of play in child development? Dive deep into my Types of Play post for expert insights. Elevate your parenting or teaching with knowledge that transforms.