My son received a set of wooden blocks before he could walk. By age five, he was writing lengthy, thoughtful letters and giving written directions to the babysitter on how to change his little brother’s diaper.
Those two events could be related, according to Dr. Dimitri Christakis of Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the University of Washington School of Medicine. In an oft-cited JAMA Pediatrics paper, “Effect of Block Play on Language Acquisition and Attention in Toddlers, ” Christakis found a correlation between playing with blocks and improved language development. After 6 months, children ages 1½ to 2½ years who played with blocks scored significantly higher on languages tests than children who didn’t.
Blocks—plain wooden manipulatives—improves vocabulary. But how can a toy that has no words or letters increase a child’s use of words? The conclusion may seem counterintuitive. Or maybe it makes sense, for four reasons (and probably more).
1. They’re simple.
One key of building blocks’ language-enhancing effects: they are generic. “Through play, that is, unstructured manipulation of objects, the child begins to develop a mental picture of and cognitive categories about the objects around him or her, ” Christakis’s article states. “These mental schemes underlie an understanding of … language. It has been shown that children acquire these mental schemes through imaginative play.”
Key word: imaginative. Because block play is “unstructured” and non-specific, it allows children space and freedom to create their own stories and scenarios, which leads to language and creativity development. Doireann O’Connor, Early Childhood Education professor at Institute of Technology Sligo, Ireland, says a good toy is “10% toy and 90% child. That is … a good toy allows for the greater input of the child.”
Derry London, writing for Gannett Company’s WLTX News 19, puts it this way: “A child given a generic astronaut doll may make up her own story. Give her a Buzz Lightyear doll, and she may simply copy the dialogue from Toy Story.” No script is provided, so the children make up their own.
2. They’re not on a screen.
An infant or toddler hunched over an iPad is not an uncommon sight. Screen time has become a staple portion of a child’s life—about 4½ hours a day, or 20 to 30 percent of a preschooler’s waking hours. Modern media detaches us from the real-world, real-time events our brains were meant to process. “It wasn’t really until the advent of modern media that we were able to speed things up and make them happen at a pace that is surreal. And even early media didn’t do that. That’s a relatively new phenomenon, ” says Dr. Christakis in a February 2015 interview with NPR’s Eric Westervelt.
Besides speeding up life to an unreal pace, screen time replaces the time a child could be spending on open-ended, creativity-growing activities. In contrast, block play by definition happens in the real world, in real time—and with real people.
3. They’re not “educational toys.”
That is, they’re not marketed as educational toys—perhaps because they don’t need to be. They’re just plain fun. Perhaps if we simply play with our children, learning will happen along the way. You don’t have to give your kid ball-throwing lessons. Just have a lot of snowball fights.
4. They’re collaborative.
In Reuters Health, Physician and medical journalist Allison Bond quotes from a 2014 Trends in Neuroscience and Education paper. “One reason these old-fashioned toys provide a lot of benefits is that they involve other play partners or adults in some way, ” said Brian Verdine, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Delaware’s School of Education. “Playing together remains the best way parents can help foster their young children’s development, ” said Dr. Christakis.
It makes sense. To grow in words, children need interaction with other people. More important than the toy itself is the person-to-person communication it stimulates. For language building, don’t go for the alphabet DVD or phonics app. Instead, play with blocks. Play in the sandbox. Play with the rocks and sticks in your backyard.
Continuing with Older Children
Dr. Christakis and the American Academy of Pediatrics have warned about excessive screen time for young children. The research shows that blocks help language and creativity development. But what about big kids? When they outgrow blocks, they still need something to keep them actively creating instead of passively being entertained.
LEGO® Mindstorms have become so popular, national competitions have been designed around them. High school STEM programs incorporate VEX Robotics into their classrooms. Tweens not yet ready for the advanced programming these robotics require may find Crossbeams a good fit.
Crossbeams inventor Charles Sharman has written an informal paper on a building system’s “combinatorial degree, ” drawing on the research of Changizi, et al. The higher the combinatorial degree, the greater the creative possibilities for that system. Changizi’s calculations found living networks (organisms, ant colonies, and nervous systems) have combinatorial degrees from 4 to 18, while human-involved networks (electronic circuits, Legos, businesses, and universities) have combinatorial degrees from 1 to 3. Legos have a combinatorial degree of 1.41. Although Crossbeams is human-designed, its combinatorial degree of 6.07 exceeds human-designed networks and approaches living systems.
Boiled down to layman’s terms, the more generic the building toy, the more creative a child can get with it (see #1 above). You would do better to help your child grow in his or her individual creativity by getting a set of basic LEGO® bricks instead of a custom set with specially shaped pieces. Plain bricks allow them to build a house the way they want it, instead of having to use a special “roof piece” already molded into someone else’s design. Remember the astronaut doll versus the Buzz Lightyear doll?
Besides the published research, I can simply give you my own “research” based on three data points: my three sons.
All of them played with blocks as infants and toddlers. One year, my second son asked for another set of blocks for his birthday—his 13th birthday. I began to see blocks transformed into the Taj Mahal, a kangaroo, the Freedom Tower, and an aircraft carrier. On another birthday, he asked for duct tape.
Very rarely did we buy toys. Instead, they used cardboard, birthday-present duct tape, and a ream of 11” by 17” paper purchased with their own money to make swords, shields, and homes for the plush-toy rat. We bought books and checked them out from the library by the dozens, then returned the next week for more. They wrote and illustrated picture books—complete with copyright and dedication pages—on sheets of cardstock, which I then hole-punched and bound with yarn from my crochet basket.
The five-year-old who wrote diaper-changing directions sparked the beginning of his dad’s toy invention, then eventually became the company’s first contractor, designing kits. Now a high school senior, he wants to double-major in aeronautical engineering and history (a pleasing, well-rounded combination, I’d say). My unscientific, parentally biased conclusion is that his language and creativity are extremely well developed.
Maybe one day he will put those own diaper-changing instructions to use on his own children. I hope he also buys them blocks.
You might enjoy our “Incidentally” columns on the role of toys and play in teaching:
For further reading:
Playing With Blocks May Improve Language Development In Toddlers (Seattle Children’s)
Toy Blocks and Construction Toys: A Guide for the Science-Minded (Parenting Science)