Schools rediscover the joy and benefits of building blocks

This young builder at the Yeadon Regional Head Start Center in Yeadon, Pa., impressed President Barack Obama with her building block skills earlier this month. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

This young builder at the Yeadon Regional Head Start Center in Yeadon, Pa., impressed President Barack Obama with her building block skills earlier this month. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

There is a Peter Allen/Carole Bayer Sager classic that proclaims,  “Everything old is new again.” We see that a lot in education.

And here is an example from The New York Times — a story on the resurgence of blocks and block play centers in schools as a counterbalance to prescriptive learning.

The story, which opens with college-educated parents at a workshop on block play, reports that schools and parents are eager to return to foundational activities that encourage exploration and creativity in children and don’t entail filling in the bubbles or sitting in front of screens.

Most parents can attest that there’s no more winning combination than kids and empty cardboard boxes. But I have to wonder how many parents at the blocks workshop also provide their youngsters laptops, iPads and other electronic treasures.

In fact, if you read the story, you will note that some schools are marrying block play with technology, allowing students to use computers to figure out building designs, create plans and record construction progress.

Here is an excerpt from the Times piece, but try to read the full article:

The Parents League workshop reflects a renewed faith in unit blocks — those basic, indestructible wooden toys created in the early 1900s — sweeping through some elite swaths of New York’s education universe. While many progressive private and public schools have long sworn by blocks, more traditional institutions are now refocusing on block centers amid worries that academic pressure and technology are squeezing play out of young children’s lives.

Eva Moskowitz, the former city councilwoman who runs a fast-growing network of charter schools, said her schools had created a “religion around blocks,” and she proudly advertises their fully outfitted block labs alongside the chess program and daily science classes. The International School of Brooklyn is developing a program using blocks to reinforce foreign-language acquisition. And Avenues, the for-profit school scheduled to open next year in Greenwich Village, is devoting a large section of its kindergarten floor to a block center. “If you talk about block program with parents these days,” said Libby Hixson, director of Avenues’ lower school, “they just light up.”

Studies dating to the 1940s indicate that blocks help children absorb basic math concepts. One published in 2001 tracked 37 preschoolers and found that those who had more sophisticated block play got better math grades and standardized test scores in high school. And a 2007 study by Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital, found that those with block experience scored significantly better on language acquisition tests.

But perhaps the hottest pitch of late, particularly to high-stress, high-strung New York City parents, is that blocks can build the 21st-century skills essential to success in corporate America. At the Chapin School on the Upper East Side, where educators have spent the last several years weaving a comprehensive block program into kindergarten and first-grade math and social studies, students toiled together on a grocery store and a fancy hotel one recent morning, beneath a sign that read: “When Partners Disagree They Try for a Win-Win Solution.” Nearby was another sign, outlining a seven-step building guide, that looked as boardroom as it did classroom.

Ms. Reitzes, who runs the youth center at the 92nd Street Y, said many educators were embracing blocks as an antidote to fine-motor-skill deficits and difficulty with unstructured activity, problems that they blame on too much time in front of screens and overly academic preschools. Sara Wilford, director of the “Art of Teaching” graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College, sees it as an obvious backlash. “There are so many schools where children are seeing less and less play,” she said. “And I think parents are getting that that is not going to help them.”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

12 comments Add your comment


November 29th, 2011
9:36 am

My daughter LOVED her blocks when she was a little girls.

Dr. John Trotter

November 29th, 2011
10:24 am

Kindergarten should be about fun and discovery. Yes, building blocks and other fun activities. This is where kids love to learn, love to be with other kids, love to socialize. No, our educrats (these numbskulls! Note that I refrained from calling them dumbas$es!) even took the fun out of Kindergarten and turned Kindergarten into Standardized Testing Factories! These Educational Nazis ought to be run out of education on a rail! Is Arne Duncan an Educational Nazi? Yep. He heads up the National Educationalist Party. Ha!

Good Memory

November 29th, 2011
10:51 am

I’m 71, but I can still remember the wooden letter blocks I had as a very young child–a red A, a blue B—and the little wagon they fit into. And my mother read books to me like the Uncle Wiggly books…and I very dimly remember doing finger-painting in kindergarten…For a long time, I thought that computerized “digital art” was finger-painting.

And I wound up loving school, staying in school, and eventually getting a doctorate, too……….


November 29th, 2011
11:11 am

Prior to editing the pic caption originally read ‘As he takes a seat in a preschool classroom President Barack Obama finds a handful of thumbtacks that were misplaced earlier in the day’.


November 29th, 2011
12:00 pm

Kids playing with blocks in kindergarten requires a “block program”? Just one more childhood pleasure that is going to be overanalyzed by adults and then overlegislated and overstructured. So stupid. Just let the kids PLAY.

Dr NO / Mr Sunshine

November 29th, 2011
12:33 pm

Dont be surprised when the Feds and/or Arne Dunca insist all blocks be in the shape of a sphere


November 29th, 2011
2:38 pm

My kindergartner has homework EVERY night and mentions every now and then that his day seems SO long. Why? The boy gets 15 minutes of recess. That’s it. There is no play in Kindergarten now, and it’s sad and frustrating to the kids. He is already asking when the next “break” is!!!!

Dr NO / Mr Sunshine

November 29th, 2011
3:10 pm

Obama is stating…WOW, I wish I could do that.


November 29th, 2011
3:47 pm

My daughter says the same thing oneofeach4me.

Anon Kindergarten teacher

November 30th, 2011
5:59 am

We don’t even get recess. The kids work from the morning bell until the end bell. They get lunch and specials (Music, etc.). I have blocks in my class, but I am not allowed to use them because they aren’t standards based.

To Anon Kindergarten teacher from GM

November 30th, 2011
4:54 pm

Blocks can likely be “Standards based” when you use them to help with math skills.

You can count with blocks :)

Anon Kindergarten teacher

November 30th, 2011
5:27 pm

Tried that. We have other things to be used for counting. Thanks for the suggestion though.