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.
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