Children love to play and build things with blocks, but blocks are often an underappreciated and underused learning tool in the classroom. Keith Pentz, National Early Childhood Specialist for Kaplan Early Learning Company, has worked in the education field for more than 35 years and strongly believes that block play can have a much bigger role in the classroom learning environment. We recently asked him a few questions about block play and the power of blocks:

1. How would you define block play?

Keith: Block play involves the use of a variety of materials referred to as blocks (noninterlocking, often stackable, constructed/consisting of diverse composition, and representative of specific and nonspecific shapes) and the supporting materials that encourage, enhance, and provoke extended experiences with blocks.

2. What are the benefits of block play?

Keith: Block play serves as much more than a “free-time” center and experience. Proper instruction and engagement with blocks supports math, science, engineering, early literacy/language arts, social and emotional development, the arts, social studies, gross and fine motor development, and various subsets/categories of curricular expectations.

3. What do you think is the biggest misconception about block play?

Keith: Two big misconceptions about blocks are that they are enjoyed mostly by boys and that they are oriented primarily to math skills. Blocks can help children develop a variety of skills, and both boys and girls can have fun building structures in the block learning center. Another huge misconception is that blocks are expensive. As an initial outlay of money, a good set (or sets!!!) of wooden unit blocks and hollow blocks will be pricey. However, with proper care, they will outlast any teacher and serve several generations of learners.

4. How many blocks should be in a learning center?

Keith: Researcher and educator Pam Phelps suggests 35 blocks per toddler who will participate in a block area and 100 blocks per preschool child who will be at a center (these numbers are considered to be “minimums”). Additionally, other guidelines as provided in the ECERS-R and ECERS-3 suggest minimums of 10-20 of each variety or type of block. These numbers DO NOT include support pieces such as LEGO® and DUPLO® materials, signs, cars and other vehicles, interlocking logs/bricks, and other construction/building materials.

5. Are there any specific guidelines for teachers to use?

Keith: The Block Book by Elisabeth Hirsch, ed. from NAEYC is invaluable, and the March 2015 edition of Young Children entitled “Blocks”, also from NAEYC, provides a wealth of information and guidelines for programs working with infants and toddlers through preschool/kindergarten and beyond. It really is about scaffolding children’s learning when they engage in the block area. Asking questions, problem solving, modeling, trial and error, and serving as a guide and encourager are the best strategies a teacher can use. Linking the learning to curricular objectives and goals can readily be accomplished by simply making the learning meaningful.

6. Why do you think blocks and block play are often considered a small or insignificant part of the classroom?

Keith: Blocks and block play often get relegated to a small portion of the classroom. In general, blocks and dramatic play are often the two most visited centers/interest areas in a classroom and should be accessible by more children at one time. In addition, just the nature of block play should allow for additional space considerations so that structures and building can take on a grand feel. Sometimes children are actually reluctant to visit the block area because they do not know what to do or how to even approach the area. If a teacher has not encouraged block play or has a rigid manner in which the block center and interest area are allowed to be used, then children will not feel comfortable in the area or have any idea what to do. Throw into the mix that many teachers do not understand how blocks can enhance the entire program/curriculum, and blocks get relegated to being just another center rather than a focal point.

7. Why do you think block play should be a more important part of the classroom learning environment?

Keith: As stated above, blocks can and should be a focal point for learning in every classroom—indoors and out!!! (Yes, there are blocks created specifically to be taken outside along with incorporating a variety of other materials.) The ease of use, the application of ideas and information, the obvious trial and error, extension of ideas, follow through, planning, vocabulary, socialization, and curricular support are just a few of the ideas that make block play important.

8. Is there anything else you would like to add or anything else you think teachers should know about blocks or block play?

Keith: This quote from the preface of The Block Book by Elisabeth Hirsch, really sums things up: “The pleasure of blocks stems primarily from the aesthetic experience. It involves the whole person—muscles and senses, intellect and emotion, individual growth and social interaction. Learning results from the imaginative activity, from the need to pose and solve problems.”

As one of our professional development presenters, Keith is available to speak at your school or center about a variety of education topics. Contact our professional development team at 1-800-334-2014 or training@kaplanco.com for more information! To view all of our on-site and online professional development offerings, visit www.kaplanco.com/ProfessionalDevelopment/.

Be sure to browse our selection of blocks and to check out these related articles!

How to Set Up Your Preschool Block Learning Center
Using Block Play to Promote STEM in the Classroom
Blocks vs. Manipulatives: Is There A Difference?