What is it about blocks that makes them one of the first toys babies play with, as well as an activity that children return to throughout childhood? You’ve seen your baby, only just having mastered sitting up, begin to stack two or three blocks together. You’ve seen your toddler building the tallest tower they can manage, glorying in the crash when it tumbles down. And you’ve seen older children lost in their play as they maneuver their blocks this way and that, trying to bring their inner image to reality.
This world-building is at the heart of block play.
Children are not only creating fairylands when they stack their blocks together; they’re creating their inner world. They’re learning what they can and cannot control, and how their towns or fortresses might be limited by the range of blocks available. As a parent, it’s wonderful to see them solve such quandaries by reaching for novel building supplies, like silks and playcloths, rocks, sticks, non-typical blocks or even wooden animals to bring their ideas to life.
Problem-solving like this further develops an imaginative approach when they’re confronted with difficulties outside the realms of their play. Having figured out how to make a forest for their deer or dragon to wander through, they’ve also enhanced their ability to work through challenges they might face later in their academic life. They are building the confidence to know that they’re the sort of people who figure things out; they’re also taking in the important lesson that mastery is achieved, not bestowed.
Block play has a magic in a partner or group setting, as well. With a friend or sibling, or a few friends in a classroom or playgroup, children begin to work out the social dynamics of strife, reconciliation and cooperation. When all goes well, you will see the play blossoming as the children share ideas, building a story together. It’s wonderful to hear them working out how each child finds their place. Some children respond to the group by quietly incorporating all that the others are saying. Some will talk and talk, letting their playmates work out how to fit this flow of ideas into the group. And others might sit back, watching and learning, only to step in when they feel certain that their idea will work.
Even when play does not go this smoothly, blocks have a flexibility that allows children to draw away from each other for peaceful, solitary play. They can have some parallel play, or even across the room play, and then try to appreciate the designs of the other as a way to build a bridge back to more social engagement. With a variety of blocks at hand, they can be individuals exploring the secrets of building together.
Watch your own child as they move from simply mouthing the bumpy faces of an alphabet block to trying to stack a few together to tower building to creating whole worlds. With such play, you’re also seeing them build themselves.