Unlocking the Power and Potential of Block Play
Visit any Early Years classroom or outdoor area and the resource you are guaranteed to find is blocks.
In fact, whenever I’m asked what the first resource on my own wish list would be, it’s always blocks.
Whether these be large, small or combined with small world resources to create an inspiring ‘story factory’, block play and blocks have long featured as a staple of our learning environments.
However, there are questions we need to ask about blocks, as there are with any resource we provide, including:
- Why do we provide blocks in early years?
- How do they connect with the curriculum?
- How do we support learning to unlock their potential?
We all know that young children have a natural desire to construct and create, we see this every day as they use the blocks to build new worlds, amazing structures, collaborate on complex designs and bring their ideas to life, but where does this start and how does it develop over time?
Stages of Block Play
Let’s consider for a moment, reflecting on the work of Harriet Johnson: The Art of Block Building, the types or stages of play we might see as children engage with these versatile resources.
- Stage 1: Blocks are carried around, not used for construction
- Stage 2: Building begins, mostly rows either horizontal or vertical, with stacking
- Stage 3: Bridging, using two blocks with a space between them, connected by a third block
- Stage 4: Enclosures, with blocks placed to enclose a space
- Stage 5: Designs, patterns and elaborate structures emerge
- Stage 6: Large scale co-operation, children plan with a purpose and use what they’ve built
Of course, we know that as part of their unique learning journey, children will explore, experiment and investigate resources in a myriad of ways and at different times, but these stages give us a clear framework for development.
We can see from these just how easily children of different ages can access block play to build their confidence and expertise as they spend more time accessing this open-ended resource.
Curriculum links for Block Play
Block play offers a wealth of learning opportunities across the curriculum, especially when provided consistently year on year in a variety of contexts, and when combined with the potential for story telling through small world or role play. Here are just a few:
- Physical skills: Fine and gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness
- Social & emotional skills: Autonomy, initiative, co- operation
- Language & literacy skills: Vocabulary, beginnings of story re-call
- Mathematical skills: Size, shape, 1-1 correspondence, comparison
- Creative skills: Divergent thinking, imagination
- Scientific skills: Similarities & differences, balance, cause and effect
Partners in learning
The key to unlocking the potential of any resource we offer is our understanding of child development and how children’s innate desire to experiment supports learning over time along with our knowledge of the curriculum.
Both of these strands guide how we interact with children as they experiment and create. As we play alongside children in the block area we:
- Observe and take note of their key interests and fascinations
- Respond to their requests and ideas
- Sensitively suggest possibilities to extend their play and thinking
- Model language and extend vocabulary
- Support with the development of imaginative play
As we role model we are able to:
- Model how to think aloud by making comments such as ‘I’ve not thought about that before’, ‘You’ve really made me think about…’, ‘How might I…’
As we sensitively raise questions our purpose is to:
- Stimulate ideas and add challenge with questions such as ‘What do you notice about?’, ‘I wonder how?’
And when we are able to mobilise ourselves to teach effectively in these ways, we can unlock the power of our provision.
Suggested next steps
It’s always good to take a step back and find time to review your block area(s), considering how your children are using the resources and how their skills are developing.
Reflect on your shared understanding of how blocks provide learning opportunities across your curriculum and consider how confident you and your team are at drawing on this understanding when interacting with the children.
Enjoy developing your block play!
By Phil Armstrong, Senior Leader, Early Excellence
Find Out More
Download our free Block Area Planning Guide for inspiration on how to develop a well organised block area which promotes imaginative thinking and open-ended exploration in young children.
Support open-ended exploration and imaginative block play with our range of open-ended block resources for both Early Years and KS1 classrooms.