Blocks are Basic to Learning
By Nancy P. Alexander

"They cost too much."

"The children will hit each other and throw them."

"No one ever wants to pick them up."

Do you have a set of wooden unit blocks sitting on the shelves in your classroom, or do you have them packed away in a storage closet somewhere? Perhaps you do not even own a set because you think there will be problems? Unit blocks are wonderful teaching materials for young children that are sometimes overlooked, undervalued, and underutilized.

In the history of early childhood education, several of the founders of the study of children used blocks for first-hand experiences. Froebel and Montessori both used wooden blocks in their work with children. But the real mother of unit blocks as we know them today was an exceptional kindergarten teacher, Caroline Pratt. Ms. Pratt had the unique experience of having a woodworking background along with the desire to teach young children. She opened her City and Country school in the early 1940's in New York. As she looked for sturdy learning materials, she found she often had to create her own because of budget constraints—something teachers still do today. In this article, we will give answers to some of the objections for using unit blocks as well as helpful hints for introducing and supervising a block area in the classroom.

They Cost too Much
A good set of unit blocks is an investment. Yes, they do cost a lot initially, but when we look at the cost over their useful life, it is actually minimal. A set of good, hardwood blocks will last at least 40 years. In fact, most companies now offer from 40 years to a lifetime replacement guarantee. When you prorate a $400 initial cost over 40 years of usefulness, a set actually costs only four cents a day - less than the cost of a piece of construction paper! The question then becomes how can we not afford them? These manipulatives will not go home in pockets, nor will they be inadvertently swept out or thrown away. And they are one of the most versatile materials you can purchase. Blocks can tie in with any theme or unit, teach math and science concepts, and develop social skills.

The Children Will Hit Each Other and Throw Them
In a properly set up and supervised block area, problems rarely occur. The secret to a successful block area is planning. Attention to proper set up and introduction at the beginning of the year will pay off many times in preventing discipline problems. A good block area will absorb children's interest and keep them productively involved and learning.

No One Ever Wants to Pick them Up
If we view cleaning up as a learning experience, it ceases to be drudgery. Your attitude about this learning experience will be the key in getting cooperation at clean-up time. When children replace blocks on the shelves, they are sorting by shape and length. When adhesive paper shapes or pictures are used on the shelves to mark the location for each type of block, children are matching the real item to an abstract representation, the first step in literacy (words represent things, actions or concepts).

Setting up a Block Area
When planning a block area, select a location in the room out of the traffic pattern to eliminate problems that occur when one child accidentally knocks over another's building. Look at the area from the child's viewpoint. If the area has visual barriers on several sides, children will stay involved in their constructions longer. Low dividers protect the area from traffic, allow you to supervise, and prevent the children from being distracted by other activities in the room. Shelves to hold the blocks should adjoin the area. A short-napped rug reduces the inevitable clatter of falling blocks and also provides boundaries for the block play.

Next decide which block shapes and how many blocks to put out for the children to have access to. At the beginning of a school year or when many new children are enrolled, it will work best to put out only a few shapes. Putting out the smaller shapes first will allow you to introduce the blocks and reinforce appropriate behavior. Don't invite children to use long blocks as baseball bats by putting large ones out before children understand the limits! After the children become skilled and understand the guidelines, give them variety by adding more.

For organizational purposes, cut the shape of each block from adhesive paper and put the paper on the shelf where you want those blocks to go. This provides a visual clue for replacing the blocks and keeping the shelves orderly. Blocks should be placed on the shelves sorted by shape and size. You can also use catalog pictures of the block shapes or construction paper shapes. Laminating these before use will make them last longer. If you simply pile the blocks on the shelves or in a box, you will be asking for problems and giving negative messages to children about caring for blocks.

You will also want to decide how many children can use the area at a time. Depending on space available and children's social skills, the area can be designated for two to five children. In most classrooms, three seems to provide good social interaction with minimal conflict. You may start with two or three children and later during the year as cooperative skills grow, allow four or five to use the area. Overcrowding will increase conflict; too few children limits social development opportunities.

Post a visual clue for the children, other teachers, and substitutes to help everyone remember how many children may use the area at a time. A simple sign with a numeral or stick figure or smiley face symbols works well. Depending on the ages and abilities of the children, you might start with symbols, then use the numeral as children learn its meaning, and later use the number word when children are beginning to recognize some words. Finally, decide what your rules will be. Keep them simple and positive. Lead the children to identify the rules at the time you introduce the blocks for the first time. Some suggestions are:

  • We build with blocks, not throw them.
  • You may knock down only the tower you build.
  • You may build as tall as you are.
  • We keep the blocks on the carpet (or in the block area)

Introducing Blocks
After you have the block area set up, hold a group meeting before the blocks are used for the first time. Let children feel them and talk about them. Ask about what they will do with the blocks and why they think they are neatly on shelves rather than just piled up. Help them discover what the Contact paper shapes represent. Spend as much time as possible letting the children become familiar with the blocks. Discuss guidelines for their use such as: "What would happen if the blocks are thrown?" "How do you feel when someone knocks down what you have built?" Lead the children to create a simple list of "rules" for the block area. Assure them the blocks will be available a long time. Using a timer or other system, let every child who is interested spend some time in the block area the first day.

Supervise closely and regularly reinforce desirable behavior those first few days. The goal is to give as many children as possible the opportunity to practice using the blocks appropriately. After they realize the blocks will always be there for them, there will be less competition to use the area.

After children have satisfied the initial desire to use blocks, then blocks can be added as one of the interest center choices. Periodically, add more blocks and new shapes, introducing them in a similar manner. Post the agreed-upon guidelines as reminders to other teachers and substitutes so adults will be consistent in expectations. The posted rules are good references for the children, too, and provide literacy experiences. Vary accessories according to your themes.

Getting Children to Pick Up
Give Children Notice. Always forewarn children when it is almost time to pick up. About five minutes prior to the end of interest center time, walk over to the area. Talk to children at their eye level—they will not hear an announcement to the total group since they will be very involved in building. An abrupt change promotes resistance; an advance notice helps children get ready to change activities and provides a smoother transition.

Sing a Song or Chant. You can make up your own song or chant to a familiar tune. Use a clue, such as a series of tones on a xylophone or auto harp to signal clean-up time.

Start the Process Yourself. "I'll pick up one, and you pick up one;" "I'll get the long ones, and you get the short ones." Praise children's willingness to pick up, and make it a game. Remember, children are matching shapes and classifying during this time, so it is as valuable as any matching or classifying activity you had planned.

Use Tickets. Give children a ticket with a number or shape on it and let them pick up according to what is on the ticket. Some children like to count the blocks as they place them on the shelves. Some like to see how fast they can get them all up. Demonstrate by your actions and altitude that this is an important part of the block experiences.

Once you get started with blocks, you'll wonder how you ever got by without them. Use accessories to incorporate your block area into any theme plan. So go get them out of the storeroom, out of that box pushed in the corner, and get going with blocks!

Nancy P. Alexander is director of the Northwestern State University Child and Family Network in Shreveport Louisiana. Nancy is an author and photographer, with articles and images included in many early childhood publications and college textbooks. She is the author of Early Childhood Workshops that Work: The Essential Guide to Successful Training and Workshops published by Gryphon House and frequently conducts training for early childhood personnel around the nation. Additionally, she teaches early childhood college courses over the Internet.