With the addition of a brand new set of unit blocks for each studio, I thought it was important to write a little something about play block, and why it is so important for young children. Caroline Pratt, the inventor of the unit block, observed and wrote extensively about block play and its importance for the young child. She often wrote about how experiences with blocks help to develop higher level thought. Though they look like nothing more than some cut and sanded pieces of wood, I often think of the unit block as one of the most respectful materials that we can give the young child. Way more
than just some pieces of wood, unit blocks are actually created very carefully using mathematical concepts.
For example, in a set of unit blocks, there are several different shapes, and these shapes are created to precisely fit into one another. So, when the square block is doubled it equals the rectangle block and when the triangles are doubled, it equals the square block. When the children build, the blocks offer an accurate and orderly experience.
Beyond setting the stage for later mathematical learning, blocks offer children an unbiased experience to play and create. We can think of blocks as a blank canvas for children at all developmental levels to explore. For example, some children might choose to line the blocks up, having no plan for the structure to “be” anything at all, other than an experience manipulating and exploring the shapes. While other children might want to explore balancing the blocks by building up, seeing how many blocks they can place on before it crashes down. And other children will have an idea in mind and create one or several structures that represent something else, such as a “house,” “farm,” or “road.” While children build, we like to observe and comment, validating the child’s work, “You’re building so high!,” or “The blocks are balancing.” We try not to ask what the children what they are building, because we do not want to assume that they are building anything at all or put a judgment on the experience. A good way to open up a conversation about a child’s structure is to say: “Do you want to tell me about your structure?” That gives the child the opportunity to describe what they did.