Block Building for Early Childhood Education

Some old unit blocks

Block building is NOT just for early childhood, kindergartner and nursery classrooms.

As you can see above, here are some old unit blocks that I still have in my home from when my children were little.

As you can see they are quite old and well used.

I had been an early childhood teacher for many years and was on leave to stay home with my children.

I had very little money and my mother was aghast when I insisted on buying a full set of unit blocks for my kids.

It was  a great choice and while unit blocks and block play activities are indispensable for an early childhood classroom they are great for home schoolers or anyone with young children at home.

I think  you can tell from the image what type of blocks I’m talking about (even though they don’t look so nice and clean) but when I speak about block building it is for the specific type of blocks called unit blocks.

If you have never come across unit blocks and are confused as to what they are exactly compared to other standard blocks, than you can check out over here the different block types.

Unit blocks that are used for block play when block building yet have so much learning that can be taking place during the play,and I’d like to share some of it with you.

As there is so much to talk about with blocks I am going to divide this topic into 2 posts so its easier to read.

The first post will deal with some of the stages to expect in block building, storing and presenting the blocks,tips for getting kids to clean up the blocks and rules of block building

The second post will deal with specific activities to do in the block area and during block play, activities that tie into math and reading and accessories to add to block play.

Stages in Block Building

Believe it or not children do go through specific stages and Harriet Johnson from The Art of Block Building (I think the only copies left are collectors copies)
explains them simply

  1. Blocks are carried around by children under 2 and not really used
  2. At age 2-3 building begins. Mostly horizontal and vertical stacking
  3. Bridging. They use 2 blocks with a space between with a 3rd connecting
  4. Enclosures
  5. Decorative patterns appear. Symmetry is concentrated on
  6. Buildings get named
  7. Dramatic play is tied into block play

I am just giving you these stages in order for you to realize that there actually ARE stages to this activity.

Now remember. These stages are not cut in stone, not every child goes through them at the same rate  as sometimes they go through the stages so quickly you don’t  even see them all.  (“Oh Hey was that a stage they just went through?”)

Presenting the Blocks

  • Blocks should be stored lengthwise so children can see the sizes. A full range of sizes and shapes are available with unit blocks that you can buy individually through many preschool and kindergarten supply companies  and if you’d like you can see a unit block size and shape chart.
  • The heaviest and longest blocks should go on the bottom. Try no to overcrowd.
  • If you have the specific block shelves that are sold by school furniture companies then you can cut out the shape of the block by tracing around the block onto a piece of construction paper and paste it onto the space where those blocks should go.
  • It is much better to have more of the basic unit shapes than many of the odd shapes that are available with these sets.
  • Make sure to put your shelves with blocks in it near an open space that is not too crowded that the children can build comfortably in.You can find some more info here about  setting up the block area

Rules of Block play

The same way art needs rules like no eating glue or cutting peoples hair, block play has guidelines that need to be adhered to.

  • No hitting ANYONE with a  block (pretty self understood would you think?)or writing on them
  • Don’t build too close to shelves
  • Don’t take blocks form other kids buildings
  • Don’t build too close to another ones building
  • No knocking down other buildings
  • No walking on blocks
  • Children need to know how high they can build, so set this one up according to your specifications
  • No hoarding. Take blocks as needed (unless a particular child really needs to take some next to him/ her to build)

Clean up tips

Clean up can be fun with blocks and other times there are children who didn’t even play with the blocks who actually like to clean ‘em up (I know it’s hard to believe but it’s true)

  1. Give timely warnings. Like  5-10-minutes left until cleanup
  2. Acknowledge the building before cleaning up. For work and effort, design, patterns etc. If you can’t leave it up and the child is very sad about it, take a picture of it before they take it apart.
  3. Help with clean up. Yup that always works. I’ve even seen with my kids at home that when I help, it gets done.
  4. Have children do different jobs. Example: Shirley, you do the units, Matthew, you do the 1/2 units etc. OR everyone pick up  x amount of blocks or now everyone do units and now quads, or lets fill up this shelf first.
  5. Let children make piles of 3-5 blocks on floor first of same shapes and then have kids each find piles of “5″ blocks to put away.
  6. Let children move blocks on chairs (bulldozers) or trucks to the shelves

Remember block pickup can be fun.

Next post I will be talking about the learning that goes on during block building activities but if you want to check out some of these articles you will certainly learn from them.

Opportunities for learning by Harriet Cuffaro who was actually my teacher in Bank Street College way back in the 80′s and Blocks, math and literacy

If you want to check out longer pieces on block play as opposed to just some articles you can check out these 2 wonderful books Block Play and  Teaching Numeracy, Language, and Literacy with Blocks

Even though there are many places that sell unit blocks I see that Amazon sells a small starter set called Melissa & Doug 60-Piece Standard Unit Blocks

But if you want to go with a  more substantial set I would try one of the the other sets from Amazon Unit Blocks – 110 Piece Set

So that’s it for this first post on block building. It gives me great memories writing this as I remember the pleasure I got out of my own children and my students playing with these wonderful blocks.

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