Toddlers and Block Play

Blocks are an incredibly important piece of an early learning classroom.  Besides the obvious benefit blocks have in helping children develop motor skills and hand-eye coordination, block play also teaches problem-solving, encourages language skills and promotes the development of social emotional skills.  When early educators avoid offering block play experiences for toddler, it is often because they think the blocks are a safety issue.  The truth is, it can hurt just as much when you are hit by a wooden block as it does by a plastic toy.

Materials in a Block Play Center

There are many different materials that children can use in the construction center, and they are typically categorized into three main categories: blocks, manipulatives and loose materials.  Each type serves a different purpose, so knowing their different roles and attributes are important when evaluating the materials.  It is also important to note that programs working with a limited budget can still provide a good selection of block play materials since many can be made from recycled/upcycled materials.

Let’s first consider what a block is and is not.  In order for a material to meet the criteria of a block, it must not be interconnecting. Blocks can stack easily upon each other, such as unit blocks or basic ABC blocks – or not so easily, such as tree blocks or rock blocks.

ABC Blocks

Unit Blocks

Hollow Blocks
Foam Bricks and Rocks
Tree Blocks

Cardboard Blocks

Blocks can be made out of wood, plastic, vinyl covered foam, and be solid or hollow. Because of the nature of their materials, they lend themselves to teaching concepts like balancing and leveling.

The most popular and useful type of block to have available in the construction area is the Unit Block set. Unit blocks are proportional in size (two squares are the same length as a rectangle) so children can develop mathematical concepts and build stable structures.  Classrooms can start with starter sets and then add on to include more blocks and shape options for more complicated structures.

Manipulatives are typically interlocking and designed to teach more math concepts and support fine motor development. They can be great supplements to the construction area and add contrast and special features to structures. Mega Blocks are one example of a manipulative that is often mistaken for a block.

Now let's think about where children are in their block play development.

Two year- olds are in the stages of Discovery, Towers and Roads, which means they can make simple towers and knock them down, lay blocks side by side on the floor, and build horizontally by placing blocks end to end. A two year-old will typically play alone or near other children and is usually not ready to engage in cooperative construction with peers.

Three year-olds will begin building doorways, bridges, fences and walls. They can begin to construct enclosures (rooms, pens or yards),  make bridges by standing two blocks upright and placing a third block across the top, begin to name their constructions, and will start to engage in cooperative block building. They are learning concepts such as sorting, ordering, counting, one to one correspondence, size and shape.

Another reason teachers sometimes avoid offering block play with toddlers is because the children have problems sharing the materials. The truth is, toddlers and young preschoolers have problems sharing EVERYTHING because that is where they are developmentally.  Even though most children will not begin to master the skill of sharing until age four, having opportunities to practice turn taking and side-by-side play in the block area during the toddler and preschool years will help children learn this important skill on time.

In our lending library we have a variety of block play totes you can check out, including the tote, “Toddler Block Play.”  In this tote there is the book, “Blocks,” by Irene Dickson and a set of foam blocks.

In the book the two children are playing blocks side by side – one with the red blocks and the other child with the blue blocks.  And then the inevitable happens – one of the children takes a block that isn’t theirs and the upset begins.

As you would expect, all the blocks CRASH to the floor, but the fun surprise that all the colors get mixed up.  Now that both children have blue and red blocks, they begin building together.

The tote also comes with the picture book, “Changes, Changes,” where a little wooden couple build a block house and then it catches fire. They go through several changes along the way, including building a boat, and then wind up building their house again.  This book is perfect for having a conversation about “build it again” for when a structure falls down (or gets knocked down!)  Children can practice making their own creations or recreating what they see on the pages.

In addition to the books and foam blocks, the tote also contains a set of “Tobbles,” which are six, different sized and weighted spheres that can nest inside each other.  They are great for experimenting with balance, proportion and structure.  Add the balls also included in the kit and you have a recipe for fun!

What are you waiting for?  Go get some blocks and join your toddlers!  Don't have any blocks? Gather up some cardboard boxes and start there, or visit our lending library and check out some block totes!