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All About Unit Block Play
By Nancy P. Alexander

Understanding Unit Blocks

Although there are numerous types of blocks on the market, unit blocks offer the most learning value. What is it about unit blocks that make them such an important part of any early childhood classroom? To begin with, unit blocks are proportional in size to develop mathematical concepts. They are available in various size sets according to the number of children who will use them. Unit blocks are made of hardwood with a natural finish and can therefore be expected to last many years.


Values of Unit Blocks

Children learn many concepts, especially math concepts, through block play. Play with blocks provides an excellent opportunity for social and physical development and enhances creativity. Following is a summary of the specific concepts and traits that children learn through block play:



Visual Perception

Motor Development

Spatial Orientation

Fine Motor Coordination





Self Esteem









Social Studies Concepts

Emotional Release






Finding New Solutions

Sensory Exploration



Symbolization and Representation






Divergent Thinking

Logical Reasoning















Negative Space


One to One Correspondence











Cause and Effect

Spatial Visualization

Simple Machines





Recalling Stories

Creating/Dictating Stories

Sentence Structure

Making and Using Signs

Using Books as Resources

Using Writing


Accessory List

To maximize the value of block play, accessories are important to expand children’s experiences. Accessories may be bought items or many found free or inexpensively.


Purchased Accessories

Rubber, plastic, or wooden animals

Traffic signs

Vehicles of all kinds

Rubber, plastic, or wooden people

Small cubes or other blocks to decorate

Small doll houses

Popsicle sticks for signs and fences

Tongue depressors

Easter grass

Pipe cleaners (chenille sticks)

Wooden beads for decoration

Doll house furniture

Free and Found Accessories

Cardboard pieces for roofs

Boxes to make into buildings

Tile, vinyl, or parquetry flooring samples

Carpet samples

Pictures of buildings, bridges, cities, farms, etc.

Strawberry baskets

Styrofoam trays

Fabric swatches for tents, curtains, bedspreads

Thread spools

Yarn or string for cables or fences

Film canisters for towers

Countertop samples

Wallpaper samples

Cardboard tubes from paper towels

Plastic lids

Foil or cellophane

Dress-Up Clothes

Dress-up clothes add excitement to the block area. A construction hat, fire helmet, or engineer’s cap can enrich play and link the block area to curriculum themes. Dress-up clothes invite the children to engage in dramatic play using the blocks.


Posters and Pictures

Large pictures and posters can stimulate play ideas. A large picture of a highway construction site may suggest ideas about road building. A poster of a family shopping for groceries might suggest building a grocery store.


Encouraging Imaginative, Creative Play

How does the teacher maximize children’s activities in the block area? First, provide a background of experiences that suggest possibilities for the children to pretend, such as a trip to the doctor’s office or the fire station. Provide accessories to enhance play themes or to suggest a theme for play. Arrange the items to keep the play area appealing with materials easily accessible and orderly. Most importantly, support children’s play by offering suggestions and being involved to continue to enrich it.


Sometimes teachers avoid block play because they fear that it will get out of hand. A few simple guidelines can prevent that from happening. Here are some sample guidelines for rules for block play:


·        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.

·        We build away from the shelves and others.

·        We take only what we will use.


Preparing for Block Play

Make sure that blocks are sorted and neatly arranged. Include accessories related to current curriculum interests. For example, offer some trucks after visiting a construction site. Be sensitive to the expressed interests and requests of the children as they approach the blocks. Avoid setting out every accessory the school owns since too many accessories result in a cluttered area, which ultimately discourages participation and creates resistance to cleaning up.


Some teachers discourage block play because they dislike picking the blocks up afterward. However, this problem can be alleviated with a little planning and specific guidance techniques. Encourage the children to help but do not require children to put away every block they get out before leaving the area. Many children will not participate under these conditions; thus enforcement of this rule can spoil their play. You will obtain the best cooperation from children if they are warned far enough ahead of time that they have time to bring their play to a conclusion. It also helps if the teacher pitches in too, so that everyone puts the blocks away together at the end of the playtime.


Always categorize blocks neatly when putting them away. Place them with the long side in view to make their size readily apparent. Never dump them in a bin or tub. Children will have difficulty finding the needed sizes when blocks are not stored in an orderly manner. They will simply scatter blocks unnecessarily if you store them in a bin or in any disorganized manner.


Return extra accessories to the storage area and arrange the remaining ones so they are attractive, colorful accents in the room. Leaving accessories out for too long will cause the children to lose interest in them. To have too much stuff out is just as bad as to not have enough.


Always give advance notice that playtime is coming to an end. Children resist when suddenly interrupted in their play, especially when they are very involved. Children need time to fully explore their ideas, follow through on them and create constructions.


View clean up time as a positive learning experience. Recognize its value as a matching and sorting activity. Clean up time should not be considered just a necessary chore. Here are some techniques that work:


·        Shape Tickets—Laminate block shapes on pieces of poster board. Each child picks up all the blocks that match the ticket he has drawn.


·        Number Tickets—Put a range of numbers on pieces of poster board and laminate. Each child picks up the number of blocks as on the ticket they draw. This technique uses math skills in a meaningful way.


·        Offer Choices—Ask children, “Do you want to pick up the long ones or the short ones?” Then you do the others. When children have a choice, they are more cooperative.


·        Singing and Chanting –Sing or chant a rhyme while you are cleaning. Make up your own words to a familiar tune.


·        Choosing Shelves—Let children select a shelf and replace the blocks that go on that shelf. They can work in pairs for this if a shelf has many blocks to put away.


Procedures for Block Play

What can the teacher do to help ensure that children benefit form the many values of block play? How can the teacher maintain order yet stimulate creativity? Here are some tips:


Your interest is one of the best incentives to block play. Be an observer of the children’s block play. Be ready to redirect children or offer suggestions to extend the activity according to their interests. However, avoid taking over the play to make sure it remains the children’s activity.


Teach children to select blocks and carry them away from the shelves so that everyone can easily reach the shelves as building continues. Encourage taking only what they need. And tidy up as needed to keep the play area attractive and to make room for more building.


Remember that children need time to play with their structures after they build them. Children like leaving structures up during naptime or overnight when possible.

Stress that block buildings belong to the children who did the work. Children may knock down their own structures but not destroy the work of others. Dumping all the blocks onto the floor and running off or throwing blocks must be prevented. Children who “sweep” blocks off the shelves need to stay and help pick them up.


How Do You Communicate the Value of Block Play to Parents and Others?

Here is a sample poster to place in your block area and a letter for parents: Parental support in recognizing the value of block play will encourage children to participate and will also educate the parents in the value of this wonderful hands-on activities.


Sample Poster for the Block Area


Through block play children learn:

·        Language skills

·        Reading and writing readiness

·        Many science and math concepts.

·        To cooperate and be responsible


Dear Parents:

Children learn many things from the special blocks in our classroom. The blocks are called Unit Blocks because they are designed to be proportional in size to help children learn math and other skills. Some of the math skills they learn are counting, comparison of length and width, names of shapes, and how to combine some geometric shapes to make other shapes. They are even learning the basics of addition when they discover that two short blocks will be the same length as the next size block.


Children learn science when they experience gravity as their constructions fall, and they learn the use of simple machines such as ramps through their building. They learn language skills and vocabulary as they talk about what they are creating and discuss their experiences that they are representing with the blocks. Children develop an understanding of geography as they create maps with the blocks. They acquire an understanding of sequence, an important reading skill, as they retell their experiences with the blocks. Children learn to write as they make signs and as I help them write stories about what they are building.


Children learn to cooperate and share when they work together with the blocks. They develop problem-solving skills and learn good work habits since they are responsible for picking up when they finish.


While your children will tell you they are playing, they are actually learning math, science, and literacy using the blocks. Please visit and see for yourself!



Your child’s teacher


Evaluate Your Block Area: A Checklist for Teachers

  1. Is the block area in a location free from traffic and are the boundaries clear?
  2. Are the blocks arranged on shelves orderly and attractively conductive to constructive play?
  3. Is the area carpeted to reduce noise?
  4. Are sufficient accessories and props arranged near the area to enrich the block play?
  5. Does the schedule allow for large periods of time for involvement in play?
  6. Are the children encouraged to engage in construction activities after a story or trip?
  7. Are referenced materials available (e.g.: books and pictures about airports, etc.) to clarify and extend the learning developed during block building?
  8. Do the adults call attention to mathematical concepts in an informal manner?
  9. Is a camera available to photograph block structures?
  10. Are there any children who never use the block area? What is being done to encourage them?
  11. Are children given the opportunity and skills to solve their problems themselves?
  12. Are literacy experiences encouraged through the block play through activities such as making signs?

Nancy P. Alexander is director of Northwestern State University Child and Family Network in Shreveport, Louisiana. She is the author of Early Childhood Workshops that Work: The Essential Guide to Successful Training and Workshops published by Gryphon House.