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October 11, 2016

Why Blocks Rock: How Block Building Supports Learning

By Elaine Winter
Grades PreK–K

    The classic wood unit block set was designed in the early 1900s by Caroline Pratt, founder of the City & Country School in Manhattan. They have been an important part of early childhood classrooms ever since. Built to scale, the blocks allow children to experiment fitting parts to a whole: there is the central unit block, matched by the double unit and quad. As preschool director, I no longer have my own classroom. But when I did, the block area occupied nearly half of the space in my room.  Because of this, and because we highlighted the process in so many ways, those 4-year-olds were rockin’ block builders.

    Here’s how we did it: I began the year by working with small groups of children in the block area. I talked with them about ideas and planning, what kind of building they might like to work on, etc. I then sat with them for 15–20 minutes as they got started. Once everyone had had a few opportunities for small group builds, I doubled the size of the group, until, toward December we were able to begin each week with a whole group build. Crazy, right? But I did it year after year, and it was powerful. Buildings remained standing overnight and became a base for extended dramatic play as the week wore on. After the first day’s build, accessories were introduced, and buildings were enlivened by people, animals, and vehicles. Roads and hand-printed signs followed.

    Without moving to these extreme block-building tactics, we teachers can elevate the process to the stature that I believe it deserves. Block building is a catalyst for rich, long-lasting learning experiences.

    To name just a few:

    • Social growth: empathy and introspection, skills related to negotiation, assertiveness, flexible thinking

    • Mathematical thinking: concepts related to proportion, shape, symmetry, balance, and parts to a whole

    • Scientific thinking: understanding the properties of wood (what is wood capable of?), physics (options created by ramps, etc.)

    • Social studies: as buildings take on their own identities and connect one with another, jobs and work relationships become defined

    • Executive thinking: when building with others, children begin to focus on the big picture, incorporating their own visions with those of their classmates, responding to spatial and material constraints. So many variables to factor in!

    Nancy is a pre-K teacher committed to this learning. She and her colleague Jean support each other to be able to provide a teacher’s undivided attention to the activity on a regular basis. They provide each other the same support when it comes to art, cooking, and literacy endeavors. The process begins in earnest near the start of the school year during a full group meeting. With everyone seated on the rug, Nancy talked with children about the unit block and how many other differently shaped blocks can be joined to create that shape. We also talked about having a plan when we build.

    As for jobs, there are three: Shelver, Stacker, and Delivery Person. The appeal was powerful and children ended up vying for the coveted job of Delivery Person. A word about the jobs: What we asked the children who were designated as the Stacker to do was to stack same size blocks high enough so that delivery was efficient, but not too high to transport. The job involves sorting, counting, and, of course, stacking. If the teacher-determined number is three, blocks will be stacked three-high, ready to be picked up by the Delivery Person and taken to the Stacker, who arranged them neatly on the appropriate shelf. Whew!! So much thinking goes into this work.

    When building independently, children can focus on the structure alone. Their challenges include balance and symmetry as they strive for height and stability, or puzzle out the rooms within a house or the bridge to a castle. More sophisticated, seasoned builders may want to include a window (try it), a doorway, or a staircase, sometimes calling for a teacher’s help to find a workable strategy.

    In order to encourage thoughtfulness, aka executive thinking, I like to ask children what their plan is at the outset. At the start of the year, the notion is foreign to many, but the habit grows. I asked this of four boys last week and they replied, “I don’t know, a castle, an A, a castle with him.” One of these builders ended up making a garage, just the right size to house two cars. Two others made a large square composed of perfectly fitting blocks.

     

    Partner builds add working relationships to the mix. In order to move forward, children need to share an approximate vision of what their building can be: a castle, trap, store, rocket, house, zoo, etc.

     As young children build, they work through a million problems (this process is not for the faint of heart!). Here are a few of the most common:

    1. What if I really need a certain size or shape of block and there are none left? We would look together for possible substitutions, getting in a little fraction work as we noticed that each double unit was equal to two unit blocks, for example. If this didn’t work, we shifted to Plan B or C. Can someone swap with us? Can we borrow from another classroom? If none of these worked, it was back to the drawing board, looking for a redesign solution.

    2. What if I don’t know what to build? A little no-pressure conversation usually helps an idea take shape. Classmates may have the best suggestions.

    3. What if my partner and I don’t agree on what to build? How common is this? This is a moment of great compromise and discussion, with a teacher’s help, negotiation often moves outside the block area.

    4. What if my building crashes down? Or, if someone accidentally or intentionally bumps into it? This is the biggest and hardest challenge of all. No matter what causes a building to topple, the noise is startling, and a child’s efforts are in shambles. Lots of teacher reassurance is usually needed to re-establish the equilibrium: explanations of what just occurred, help in rebuilding, questioning.

    Despite its considerable challenges, block building is an ever-unfolding curriculum that weaves in and extends classroom interests and allows children the chance to create their own worlds reflecting and reshaping those they know in “real life.” I want to say again that blocks rock in the early childhood world, for girls and boys alike.

    I would like to end with a recommendation, The Block Book, By Elisabeth Hirsch, with its wonderful commentary by Harriet Cuffaro, author and educator who inspired a love of block building in all who knew her. 

     

     

    The classic wood unit block set was designed in the early 1900s by Caroline Pratt, founder of the City & Country School in Manhattan. They have been an important part of early childhood classrooms ever since. Built to scale, the blocks allow children to experiment fitting parts to a whole: there is the central unit block, matched by the double unit and quad. As preschool director, I no longer have my own classroom. But when I did, the block area occupied nearly half of the space in my room.  Because of this, and because we highlighted the process in so many ways, those 4-year-olds were rockin’ block builders.

    Here’s how we did it: I began the year by working with small groups of children in the block area. I talked with them about ideas and planning, what kind of building they might like to work on, etc. I then sat with them for 15–20 minutes as they got started. Once everyone had had a few opportunities for small group builds, I doubled the size of the group, until, toward December we were able to begin each week with a whole group build. Crazy, right? But I did it year after year, and it was powerful. Buildings remained standing overnight and became a base for extended dramatic play as the week wore on. After the first day’s build, accessories were introduced, and buildings were enlivened by people, animals, and vehicles. Roads and hand-printed signs followed.

    Without moving to these extreme block-building tactics, we teachers can elevate the process to the stature that I believe it deserves. Block building is a catalyst for rich, long-lasting learning experiences.

    To name just a few:

    • Social growth: empathy and introspection, skills related to negotiation, assertiveness, flexible thinking

    • Mathematical thinking: concepts related to proportion, shape, symmetry, balance, and parts to a whole

    • Scientific thinking: understanding the properties of wood (what is wood capable of?), physics (options created by ramps, etc.)

    • Social studies: as buildings take on their own identities and connect one with another, jobs and work relationships become defined

    • Executive thinking: when building with others, children begin to focus on the big picture, incorporating their own visions with those of their classmates, responding to spatial and material constraints. So many variables to factor in!

    Nancy is a pre-K teacher committed to this learning. She and her colleague Jean support each other to be able to provide a teacher’s undivided attention to the activity on a regular basis. They provide each other the same support when it comes to art, cooking, and literacy endeavors. The process begins in earnest near the start of the school year during a full group meeting. With everyone seated on the rug, Nancy talked with children about the unit block and how many other differently shaped blocks can be joined to create that shape. We also talked about having a plan when we build.

    As for jobs, there are three: Shelver, Stacker, and Delivery Person. The appeal was powerful and children ended up vying for the coveted job of Delivery Person. A word about the jobs: What we asked the children who were designated as the Stacker to do was to stack same size blocks high enough so that delivery was efficient, but not too high to transport. The job involves sorting, counting, and, of course, stacking. If the teacher-determined number is three, blocks will be stacked three-high, ready to be picked up by the Delivery Person and taken to the Stacker, who arranged them neatly on the appropriate shelf. Whew!! So much thinking goes into this work.

    When building independently, children can focus on the structure alone. Their challenges include balance and symmetry as they strive for height and stability, or puzzle out the rooms within a house or the bridge to a castle. More sophisticated, seasoned builders may want to include a window (try it), a doorway, or a staircase, sometimes calling for a teacher’s help to find a workable strategy.

    In order to encourage thoughtfulness, aka executive thinking, I like to ask children what their plan is at the outset. At the start of the year, the notion is foreign to many, but the habit grows. I asked this of four boys last week and they replied, “I don’t know, a castle, an A, a castle with him.” One of these builders ended up making a garage, just the right size to house two cars. Two others made a large square composed of perfectly fitting blocks.

     

    Partner builds add working relationships to the mix. In order to move forward, children need to share an approximate vision of what their building can be: a castle, trap, store, rocket, house, zoo, etc.

     As young children build, they work through a million problems (this process is not for the faint of heart!). Here are a few of the most common:

    1. What if I really need a certain size or shape of block and there are none left? We would look together for possible substitutions, getting in a little fraction work as we noticed that each double unit was equal to two unit blocks, for example. If this didn’t work, we shifted to Plan B or C. Can someone swap with us? Can we borrow from another classroom? If none of these worked, it was back to the drawing board, looking for a redesign solution.

    2. What if I don’t know what to build? A little no-pressure conversation usually helps an idea take shape. Classmates may have the best suggestions.

    3. What if my partner and I don’t agree on what to build? How common is this? This is a moment of great compromise and discussion, with a teacher’s help, negotiation often moves outside the block area.

    4. What if my building crashes down? Or, if someone accidentally or intentionally bumps into it? This is the biggest and hardest challenge of all. No matter what causes a building to topple, the noise is startling, and a child’s efforts are in shambles. Lots of teacher reassurance is usually needed to re-establish the equilibrium: explanations of what just occurred, help in rebuilding, questioning.

    Despite its considerable challenges, block building is an ever-unfolding curriculum that weaves in and extends classroom interests and allows children the chance to create their own worlds reflecting and reshaping those they know in “real life.” I want to say again that blocks rock in the early childhood world, for girls and boys alike.

    I would like to end with a recommendation, The Block Book, By Elisabeth Hirsch, with its wonderful commentary by Harriet Cuffaro, author and educator who inspired a love of block building in all who knew her. 

     

     

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