As early childhood educators, we often field questions such as: “Why do children play so much?” and “Shouldn’t they be LEARNING more?”
The answer, though not immediately obvious perhaps, is that the two are connected. Children learn through play. The link is so important in fact, that the JCC Leonard and Syril Rubin Nursery School displays cards in the classrooms that say “When I play, I am learning.” These cards explain how each “play” experience we provide helps the children cultivate a new and different skill. Research has shown that children learn best when they interact with the world using their senses and block-play in particular is known to promote development in all four domains of learning: physical, cognitive, verbal/language and social development.
We’ll start with the physical. As young as toddlers, children begin to intuit the physical properties of blocks and experiment with them. How do they feel? Can I hold a particular block with one hand or do I need both? If I drop it, will it break? As they get a bit older, and learn to carefully place blocks on top of each other to build taller structures with a steady hand, block-play allows them to strengthen their gross and fine motor skills as well as their hand-eye coordination.
When it comes to the cognitive domain, unit blocks are designed with mathematics in mind. Smaller blocks are a quarter or half the size of a unit block, so when a child runs out of unit blocks while stacking them, they come to learn that they can substitute two half-units or four quarter units to fill the same spot. Children quickly pick up these relationships and use this knowledge to construct physically sound structures. Concepts such as length, size, and symmetry become natural next extensions of daily block play. This kind of play also allows children to experiment with gravity and balance as they choose which blocks to safely place on top of others. Even block cleanup is a rich lesson in geometry, as children learn to differentiate between rectangles, arches, squares, ramps, and various other shapes as they sort and put them away.
Another key cognitive benefit of block-play is problem solving. As children advance in their skills, challenges arise, towers crumble and block supplies run dry. To build more challenging structures, children begin to create hypotheses in their minds and test them out using trial and error. Will this block fit in this space? If I put this shape here, will it complete my design? These experiments further their cognitive thinking skills and without even being fully aware, they are learning the special art of sequencing and how it is required to successfully complete a balanced structure. If blocks are not placed in a certain order, the construction may not succeed, and children quickly learn to memorize sequences to ensure repeated success. Interestingly, sequencing is also essential as an early reading tool and children use what they learn in their block-building experiences to begin to memorize the order of events in stories or their own life, a skill that helps them communicate or read with a sense of chronology. So in addition to enhancing cognition, block-building serves as an important tool for helping children advance their verbal and reading skills.
Last but not least, block building also enriches social experiences for young children. Imagine the boost in self-esteem that children get when they come up with an idea and then make it come to life with their own two hands right before their eyes! They discover the power of their own imagination and the freedom to create little scenes or worlds of their own design, which they can carry out independently or with the help of their friends. Such projects are socially and emotionally engaging, and one of the greatest outcomes of block play is the social skills children learn while exploring this particular type of play.
They learn additional social skills when they play as a group and have to share a limited number of blocks. Their negotiating skills are put to the test. They have to take responsibility for their own play area and think about their safety and that of their friends. They also learn important lessons about cooperation, taking turns, sharing ideas and determining a division of labor. And, as every block-building session is not always a success, the children also learn important life lessons about frustration, tolerance and attention spans. Block play is really life in a microcosm, where children can learn and test all kinds of boundaries and come away with a sense of unparalleled pride.
So when you hear people ask why children play so much, you can answer just like we do. Children play so much because of the learning opportunities that play affords. Besides, shouldn’t learning AND play be fun? By providing environments that foster play and learning as an exciting journey, we are paving the way for ideal and positive learning experiences for our children.
Early Childhood Supervisor