The Benefits of Toy Blocks For Kids
In a world full of iPads, touch screen mobile phones and so called advanced electronic games, the simplest toys can sometimes be overlooked. Think back to your own childhood and you are likely to remember playing with many toys and building blocks will probably feature quite highly in the memory banks. There are a number of studies that show the benefits of toy blocks for children and here we will assess the arguments for them and look at the different ways in which they can help children develop both physically and cognitively.
Most toy blocks that are created by manufacturers will be designed in the ratio of 1:2:4 and the reason for these aesthetics are very clear in a 1997 study by the National Association for the Education of Young Children that states:
“blocks must be sturdy and accurately cut so that children of all different ages and levels of learning may use them to create, solve problems, and challenge themselves.”
The main target age group for toy blocks is from 6 months to 5 years old (although some children will enjoy playing with them beyond that) and the differing sizes means that toy blocks will promote physical development throughout a child’s time playing with them. The differing development stages that children show will be evident in the type of play they exhibit when playing with blocks; from muscular, gross and fine motor skills at a young age to fantasy role play and strategic building at the ages of 4 and 5.
Toy blocks for children should be found in the home and the classroom and parents and teachers should be aware of the benefits that they bring. Play and learning opportunities with building blocks should be promoted on a daily basis as they help to develop children’s spatial skills, fine and gross motor skills, hand eye co-ordination, problem solving, divergent thinking and their social and language skills. So you can see, there are a wide variety of advantages to giving children the opportunity of playing with these toys.
Promoting Physical Development
This is perhaps the most obvious benefit of kids building blocks and is perhaps the reason why many parents invest in them. The development of strength in the fingers and hands and the development of hand eye co-ordination are key areas of physical development that building blocks aid.
At a young age when children pick up or try to stack blocks they are developing their gross motor skills and their fine motor skills and as they grow to the age of about 2 they start to gain more of an understanding of perspective and where shapes will fit. This not only develops the child in a physical way but also helps to develop their spatial awareness.
Promoting Spatial Development
The building of structures with building blocks forces the child to consider the spatial relationships between objects and gives them a sense of perspective. A study (Caldera et al. 1999) showed that children who spent time effectively building structures with toy blocks performed better in spatial awareness tests.
A number of more recent studies in 2014 and 2015 by Oostermeijer et al, Richardson et al and Jirout have backed up the 1999 study. The overwhelming evidence supports the notion that children who have more of these learning and development experiences have higher levels of ability in terms of spatial awareness than children who don’t have the same opportunities with toy blocks.
Problem Solving and Divergent Thinking Skills
Divergent problems are problems that have multiple solutions and they are in contrast to convergent problems. Playing with toy blocks gives children unlimited opportunities to practise and develop their divergent problem solving skills. A study in 1981 by Pepler and Ross supports the argument for playing with blocks even further. The study gave two sets of children different types of puzzles – one set were given convergent problems such as puzzle pieces whereas the other set were given divergent problems with foam blocks. The overall conclusion of this study found that the children who had been given the divergent problems performed better in testing and that they also showed more creativity in solving problems.
Promoting Language Development
Perhaps the most interesting finding when looking at kids playing with toy blocks is the hypothesis that it aids language development. The studies in this area often struggle to offer fully justified reasoning as to why language develops better amongst kids who have more experience playing with building blocks but the evidence is there nonetheless.
Block play: Building a child’s mind, which is a study by the National Association for the Education of Young Children states that:
“Young children develop their vocabularies as they learn to describe sizes, shapes, and positions.”
This offers some justification as to why children develop better language skills whilst a study by Christakis et al in 2007 takes this somewhat further. They conducted an experiment with two groups of children. The first group of children were given 80 pieces of Mega Bloks to play with whilst the second group were not given anything of the sort. After 6 months the two groups of children were called back and when interviewed with parents there were two interesting findings reported for the children who had been given the Mega Bloks.
The first was that the children who had access to Mega Bloks exhibited better language skills. The second (which could be interpreted as another positive trait) is that these children had less of a tendency to want to watch television.
Promoting Social Skills Development
Playing with large and small toy blocks can aid the development of social skills in children. Playing with large toy blocks will often be one of the first experiences that a child will have of group play. Learning to share the blocks and pass and take the blocks is a vital social skill that they will learn as part of this activity. Whilst playing with smaller toy blocks (usually when they are a little older) when in groups, children will work together to overcome and solve problems, again another vital social and cognitive skill.
A study by Owens et al in 2008 showed that autistic children who played with toy blocks made more progress with their social skills than children who were coached in social language.
Other fields of research support the suggestion that children who are involved in practical group play will establish longer lasting and more meaningful friendships than children who do not partake in as much practical group play.
Learning to share, take turns, and pack away (something that also benefits the parent and the teacher) are valuable social skills that are also attributed to toy block play and are crucial social skills that are explored as a result of this type of play.
Promoting Intellectual Development
One of the most significant benefits of playing with toy blocks from a young age is the intellectual development that this type of play offers. A study by Wolfgang et al in 2003 hypothesized and proved a link between the difficulty of a child’s playing with Lego and their potential for a higher level of mathematical achievement in high school. One could argue that this is just a child showing their potential early on in life but a further and more recent study by Oostermejier in 2014 showed that the mathematical achievement was directly correlated to the amount of time spent on construction play as a child.
There is such a wealth of information to back up the claim that construction play (such as that with toy blocks) is beneficial to a child in an academic sense that it is almost irrefutable. Of course, the language development and social skill development that have already been mentioned are highly likely to contribute towards higher academic achievement in high school too.
Promoting Imaginative Development
As mentioned earlier, when a child is given free time to play with toy blocks at the ages of 3+ they are likely to engage in imaginative role play. This is something that can happen spontaneously or something that teachers and parents can encourage.
Children do not need construction play to be able to create this imaginary world around them but the physical stimulus of large and small toy blocks (that they have created) can certainly aid this type of development. Whether it is creating an imaginary structure for themselves or creating a world around them in which both the child and their toys inhabit, this type of imaginative role play can only be beneficial to the child.
Some Games To Play With Toy Blocks
Children will almost always be able to self initiate play with toy blocks but there may be times where parents or teachers want to design more structured learning and development opportunities by initiating more focused games with toy blocks. Some ideas may include:
• Asking children to sort blocks by color, size or shape.
• Building structures for other toys to interact with (such as houses or buildings for dolls or animals).
• Using blocks as musical instruments (perhaps hitting them like drums or like a xylophone with a spoon).
• Creating a tower as tall as possible (and then knocking it down only to build again).
• Create patterns with different coloured or sized blocks in lines.
• Encourage imaginative and fantasy play by introducing scenarios for your child and then step back and watch the world they create or follow their lead and involve yourself in their fantasy world.
• Combine story time with toy block play – perhaps read a story to your child and then ask them to recreate or continue the story by constructing a world in which the narrative can take place.
The Benefits Of Playing With Toy Blocks: A Summary
The depth and breadth of research is overwhelmingly supportive of the benefits of kids playing with toy blocks. Even if just one of the developmental areas that we have discussed in this article were true then there is real value to be gained in the development of kids through construction play. If all of the developmental areas are positively improved through playing with blocks then the overall reward is exponential and the value of this type of play would quite simply be invaluable.
Of course we are not suggesting that other types of play do not hold value; of course they do. However, with the right balance of types of play with a continued and consistent approach to construction play you can be safe in the knowledge that you are doing everything possible to promote positive development in your child or the children that you teach.
Some Further Reading:
If you want to find out more about kid’s development through the use of construction play then take a look at the sources that we used to bring you this article:
Caldera YM, Culp AM, O’Brien M, Truglio RT, Alvarez M, and Huston AC. 1999. Children’s Play Preferences, Construction Play with Blocks, and Visual-spatial Skills: Are they Related? International Journal of Behavioral Development; 23 (4): 855-872.
Christakis DA, Zimmerman FJ, and Garrison MM. 2007. Effect of block play on language acquisition and attention in toddlers: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 161(10):967-71.
Hirsch, E.S. 1996. The Block Book.(Third Ed.) Washington, DC: NAEYC. #132
Jirout JJ and Newcombe NS. 2015. Building blocks for developing spatial skills: evidence from a large, representative U.S. sample. Psychol Sci. 26(3):302-10. – See more at: http://www.parentingscience.com/toy-blocks.html#sthash.xuFYHta5.dpuf
Oostermeijer M, Boonen JH and Jolles J. 2014. The relation between children’s constructive play activities, spatial ability, and mathematical word problem-solving performance: a mediation analysis in sixth-grade students. Frontiers in Psychology 5 Article 782.
Pepler DJ and Ross HS. 1981. The effects of play on convergent and divergent problem solving. Child Development 52(4): 1202-1210.
Wolfgang CH, Stannard LL, and Jones I. 2003. Advanced constructional play with LEGOs among preschoolers as a predictor of later school achievement in mathematics. Early Child Development and Care 173(5): 467-475.
Block play: Building a child’s mind. 1997 From the National Association for the Education of Young Children