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The benefits of toy blocks: The science of construction play

Toy blocks, also called "building blocks," are solid shapes used for construction play. Such as Pixelriders.

Here is a review of the evidence, and some tips for enriching block play.

1. Toy blocks promote better spatial reasoning 

We know there are links between spatial skills and construction play. 

For example, when Yvonne Caldera and her colleagues observed the construction activities of 51 preschoolers, they discovered a pattern:

The kids who showed more interest in construction -- and built more sophisticated structures -- performed better on a standardized test of spatial intelligence (Caldera et al 1999).

2. Structured block play may enhance cognitive flexibility

"Cognitive flexibility" is the ability to quickly shift your focus from one relevant stimulus to another. It's clearly important for success in school. But some kids struggle with it, and certain environmental factors -- like low socioeconomic status -- put children at higher risk for developmental delays. 

3. Toy blocks are linked with language development 

Might kids also get a language boost from construction play? That seems possible.

For instance, there is evidence that very young children develop better language skills when they engage in regular block play.

In a study sponsored by Mega Bloks, researchers gave blocks to middle- and low-income toddlers (Christakis et al 2007). The kids ranged in age from 1.5 to 2.5 years, and were randomly assigned to receive one of two treatments:

  1. Kids in the treatment group got two sets of toy Mega Bloks--80 plastic interlocking blocks and a set of specialty blocks, including cars and people--at the beginning of the study. The parents of these toddlers were given instructions for encouraging block play.
  2. Kids in the control group did not get blocks until the end of the study. The parents of these kids received no instructions about block play.

Parents in both groups were asked to keep time diaries of their children's activities. Parents weren't told the real purpose of the study--only that their kids were part of a study of child time use.

4. Toy blocks may stimulate creative, divergent problem-solving 

Psychologists recognize two major types of problem. Convergent problems have only one correct solution. Divergent problems can be solved in multiple ways.

6. Kids who are skilled with toy blocks tend to become better mathematicians

Block play has been linked with math skills, too. In one study, the complexity of a child's LEGO play at the age of 4 years had long-term predictive power: More complex play during the preschool years was correlated with higher mathematics achievement in high school, even after controlling for a child's IQ (Wolfgang et al 2001; 2003).

7. Construction play helps kids develop engineering skills

It's easy to see how construction play could teach valuable lessons about architecture and engineering. Builders who create small-scale structures must cope with the same laws of physics that constrain the design of bridges and cathedrals.

That's why engineers and scientists build physical models: It helps them test and explore their ideas.

These systems of identical planks have been featured as popular, hands-on exhibits in many science and children's museums. But beware -- building with them requires some dexterity, patience, and good humor. They topple easily, and may not be appropriate for young children who are still developing these skills.