By Andie Stallman
From the time they are born, your child is communicating. Crying, laughing, grabbing, eye contact. While not requiring the spoken word, your child is talking to you. This only becomes more effective once they start using their own words, words that they learn at home, on the street, at school, and during playtime, especially with block play.
While playing with blocks and loose-parts, children create new worlds. Whether playing alone or with others, they must imagine what the blocks are and put them together in a way that brings an idea from their imagination to the real world. Independent play pushes kids to engage in and practice “self-talk” or talking to themselves. Children do this to problem-solve, build confidence, and process emotions. This is an important skill that they will carry with them throughout their entire life and a muscle that is flexed during block play.
Equally as important is playing with peers. Block play gives children the opportunity to communicate their vision to another person. They must explain what materials they need, what the blocks are used for, and how they must be placed. Toys with clear uses, such as train sets or dolls, do not require the same level or amount of communication for collaboration (Cohen & Uhry, 2007). In order for the children playing to have a collective understanding of the game, they must lean on and practice their verbal and social skills.
A study published in 2014 by Ramani et al. looked at the interactions between children during block play. They found that discussion between 5-year-olds during guided play with blocks showed conflict resolution, problem solving, and communication of mathematical concepts including counting (“I need 3 blocks”), spatial reasoning (“flip the block around”) and understanding of geometric shapes. The kids coordinated their differing perspectives to focus their efforts in order to successfully build a house out of blocks. Other studies have found that kids who produce more spatial language, as was seen in Ramani et al., performed better on spatial problem-solving tasks later in life (Ramani et al., 2014). Even in instances of parallel play, where children play with blocks near each other without actively collaborating on a structure, kids were seen communicating to get more blocks or comment on each other’s creations (Sluss & Stremmel, 2004). Opportunities to use the words they know and learn more from each other are created during block play. Through interactions, they learn how to communicate effectively to get their point across and work towards a common goal.
Guided play is another great opportunity for children to engage with the freedom of block play while having enough direction to motivate them to explore. This balance pushes children and keeps the activity enjoyable and enriching without stifling their creativity. Studies show that with light guidance, for example “build a house,” children create more complex structures than without it (Ramani et al., 2014). Integrating variety in a child’s playtime is important to test and practice different communication and social skills. This includes block play with and without prompts, collaborative and independent play time, and interacting with adults versus peers.
As adults, parents and teachers can supplement peer communication or independent play by asking the children about their creations. Questions such as what did you build, why did you use this specific block, and what was the most important thing you did while building will push the child to flex their verbal skills (Cohen & Uhry, 2007). You can incorporate this strategy in the classroom and at home to ensure that your child practices their communication as often as possible.
Andie Stallman is a research assistant at McLean Hospital, a Harvard affiliate, investigating adolescent depression, anxiety, and substance use. She is also pursuing a master’s degree in Child Development, with a focus on clinical and developmental health and psychology. Stallman graduated Magna Cum Laude from Tufts University with dual degrees in Clinical Psychology and in Child Studies and Human Development during which time she worked with children who had a broad range of disorders, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, and bell’s palsy.
And even with all of that, she has had time to assist Imagination Playground in loose-part play research using the award-winning Blue Blocks!
Cohen, L., & Uhry, J. (2007). Young Children’s Discourse Strategies During Block Play: A Bakhtinian Approach. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 21(3), 302–315. https://doi.org/10.1080/02568540709594596
Ramani, G. B., Zippert, E., Schweitzer, S., & Pan, S. (2014). Preschool children’s joint block building during a guided play activity. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 35(4), 326–336. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2014.05.005
Sluss, D. J., & Stremmel, A. J. (2004). A Sociocultural Investigation of the Effects of Peer Interaction on Play. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 18(4), 293–305. https://doi.org/10.1080/02568540409595042