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Assessing Justin's Block Play
By Sharon MacDonald

Four-year-old Justin walked into my classroom, shy and nervous before his first day of school. On our tour we visited the art, woodworking, science, and home living centers, but his eyes kept moving to the block center. Eventually, we went over to it. Justin stood there and smiled; he had found a second home. He immediately raked several shelves of blocks off onto the floor and began what was to be a year of block play! He pushed the blocks around and gathered them against his chest simply exploring their properties. "He will spend all of his time there!" I said to myself. And he did!

Background and Research
Blocks became Justin’s daily center choice. Although he would move to the other centers when prodded, blocks continued to be his thing. By November I realized Justin was still choosing the block center only. I was beginning to wonder if Justin was acquiring the skills he needed to be successful.

Before becoming too worried, I decided to do some research on block play. I read as many articles as I could about blocks and I was delighted with what I discovered—Justin could develop all the necessary skills and concepts right there in the block center.

Skills and Concepts
One of the keys to making the block center work for Justin was the kind of accessories in the center. Some of the accessories included index cards, pencils, tape, measuring tools, floor maps, and miniature street signs. As the year progressed, I added other props so that I could channel the essential skills and concepts he needed to be successful in school. To help remind myself of what Justin, learned in the block center, I began to keep a list of the skills and concepts I observed him learning (see "In the Block Center Children Learn to..." at the end of this article).

Learning About Justin’s Development Through Blocks
I also learned that it was important to know the developmental level at which the child was working. By knowing his level of play, I could tell if Justin was advancing. To do this, I used "Block Play Stages" as a guide and reference. From "Stages" I learned that I could not ask Justin to "Make a sign for your building," (a Stage Five task) when he was in Stage Two of his block development. I could, however, help him focus on the patterns he was creating at Stage Two by providing him and the other children with street signs, cars, and measure mats. At each stage, I added more items to the center to build on the emerging skills and concepts I observed.

As you can see from "Block Play Stages," Justin began his pre-k career in Stage One of block play. On that first day, Justin explored the texture, weight, and shape of blocks. Then, he moved to Stage Two by stacking the blocks in a row. By January, I noticed he was bridging (Stage Three). Justin’s ability to estimate block length suggested that it was time to add measuring tools and pattern cards to the center. By March, he was making enclosures, developing spatial awareness, and arriving at unique solutions so that all of the blocks made a closed box-like structure. In May Justin built a structure, added props, and declared, "This is old MacDonald’s farm, where we get food...and where all the animals live!"

Block Play Stages by Sharon MacDonald


Stage One (Ages 2-3): Children explore the properties of blocks by moving, touching, holding, and feeling as opposed to building.


Placing wagons for hauling, baskets for carrying, and suitcases for packing in the block center will encourage children at this stage of block play.


Stage Two (Age 3): This stage can be called "stack and row" because children stack blocks vertically or lay them horizontally, repeating the same designs over and over.

Putting pattern cards, cars and road signs, and floor mats in the block center will encourage stack-and-row play.


Stage Three (Ages 3-4): During this stage of development, children begin building structures, especially bridges. At first, children will set up two blocks, leave a space between them, and place a block between to span the space. As the child masters the bridge concept, the bridges become more elaborate.


Bridge building can be facilitated by putting pictures and architectural drawings of bridges in the block corner. You might also want to add a large piece of blue cloth for water, cake decorating columns, and boats.


Stage Four (Age 4): Children begin to develop problem-solving skills by making enclosed structures during this stage of block play. In order to make an enclosed structure, children must plan carefully. After they have mastered enclosures with the blocks lying flat, they will move on to vertical enclosures.


Block enclosure play can be encouraged by putting farm or zoo animals as well as play fruits and vegetables in the block center.


Stage Five (Ages 5-6): During this stage of play, elaborate, decorative structures as well as symmetrical patterns begin to appear and children begin to name their structures. The name rarely relates to the function of the building. For example, a child might have a bathtub, store, farm yard, and swing all in the same structure.


Encourage this stage of block play by providing task cards, pictures of skyscrapers, blank paper for signs, and roofing materials.


Stage Six (Ages 5-6): Children work cooperatively to build a common structure. They will decide before they start what they are going to build, and assign each other specific roles. Children will want to keep the structure up for several days to continue working and to start dramatic play around the structure.


You can offer props that go with the topic of the block structure to facilitate dramatic play. A variety of accessories might include hats and clothes, measuring tools, task cards, candles with no wicks, and bean bag figures.


How Do You Assess This?

How was I to measure all of the good things happening to Justin? While I was observing Justin’s block play, I was using portfolios to track the children’s growth and development over time. I included children’s work samples, photographs of the children actively learning, information gathered from parents, tape recordings, and anecdotal records inside each portfolio. Why not document block play in the same manner?

Since block structures could not be saved, photographs served as one way to capture the information. I also used anecdotal recordings to capture Justin’s emerging and mastered skills on paper. I noted, for example, that he had created a pattern, counted a number of blocks, and placed one triangular block on one square block (i.e., one-to-one correspondence). When Justin would make a sign for his building, draw a picture of his structure, or write a story about what he created, I saved or copied the information and put it in his portfolio. Justin’s work in the block center gave me information about his ability to form words and use words to represent his thoughts and ideas. I also was also able to see Justin’s writing ability by checking to see if his characters moved through the story and by noting if the story had a beginning, middle, and end.

Before Justin was able to write a story, I used tape recordings. He would often dictate a story about his structure. From these conversations, I was able to evaluate his language development, including sentence structure and vocabulary.

Justin has moved on and his portfolio of work with blocks went with him. Today he is a successful third-grader. Blocks were Justin’s thing—a way to channel information. By careful observation and documentation, I was able to let Justin learn in the style that best suited him.

Sharon MacDonald is author of Portfolio and Its Uses: A Road Map for Assessment and Doing it, Together! Workshops for Teachers of Young Children.


In the Block Center Children Learn to...

  • Use oral language in a variety of situations
  • Match objects in one-to-one correspondence
  • Develop social skills appropriate to group behavior
  • Use vocabulary to designate quantities and relationships
  • Demonstrate concepts of part/whole
  • Use vocabulary to compare objects (same/different)
  • Form groups by sorting and matching objects according to their attributes
  • Know and discuss the consequences of actions in social relationships
  • Acquire nonlocomotor movement skills
  • Create, repeat, and/or extend patterns
  • Develop hand/eye coordination
  • Observe and follow safety rules
  • Put objects in order
  • Develop mapping skills
  • Represent physical addition and subtraction
  • Develop classification skills
  • Differentiate size and shape and recognize relationships
  • Discuss ways people help each other
  • Express relative sizes
  • Understand gravity, stability, weight, and balance
  • Think, create, and implement plans
  • Discover properties of matter and the names and functions of buildings
  • Develop respect for the work of others
  • Make choices and decisions

Adapted from MacDonald, S. (1997). Portfolio and Its Uses: A Road Map to Assessment. Little Rock, AR: SECA.