• Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Categories
    Categories Displays a list of categories from this blog.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Archives
    Archives Contains a list of blog posts that were created previously.
  • Login
    Login Login form

A Chip Off the Old Block? Block Play May Help Children's Spatial and Mathematical Thinking

Posted by on in Movement and Play
  • Font size: Larger Smaller
  • Hits: 4703


We love technology. If it talks to us, requires a charge and responds to a touch, we gotta have it. But is the same true for our kids? Although they love these devices too -- just ask any parent with an iPhone or tablet -- should parents be tempted to forgo purchasing those colorful blocks and puzzles that have been staples in children's toy chests for centuries? A study we are just about to publish in the journal, Child Development suggests that opting for an electronic toy over that block set might be a big mistake. Playing with blocks may be crucial for helping preschoolers develop "spatial thinking." We use spatial thinking all the time -- like when we pack up the trunk of our car for a trip, or use a map or envision where the triangular block goes in relation to the square blocks. These are just the kinds of skills that support learning in science, technology, engineering and math (often called STEM skills). And spatial tasks like block building don't only have payoff for developing spatial skills. Putting block structures together and taking them apart may yield important lessons for math, where after all, we add units and take units away all the time.

In our study (conducted with Brian Verdine, Alicia Chang, Andrew Filipowicz and Professor Nora Newcombe), we asked three-year-old girls and boys to copy six structures we built out of blocks. So, for example, we showed each child a block structure made out of four blocks and asked them to make the same thing. We gave them the exact number of blocks they needed, but all separated. Not so simple for a three-year-old. For one thing, the blocks have little pips on them -- those bumps on the block that allow the children to tightly fit one block on top of the other. If a child puts a block over the wrong pips, they made a mistake. And children have to notice whether a block in the model is horizontal or perpendicular to the block on the bottom. 

Drumroll please! We found that both boys and girls who were better at copying the block designs were also better on math problems that don't involve language -- like when you slip two black disks under a cover and then slip in one more and ask children how many disks they have now. They don't see the disks, so they can't count them. Instead they have to keep in mind how many are under the cover and what adding one more disk comes to. Block building takes memory and noticing "how many" too, because of the pips on the blocks. So our research and other studies suggest that experiences with building blocks may turn out to be building a foundation for understanding math. Calling someone a blockhead has a whole new meaning!


Last modified on
Rate this blog entry:

Roberta Michnick Golinkoff holds the H. Rodney Sharp Chair in the School of Education at the University of Delaware and is also a member of the Departments of Psychology and Linguistics. An author of twelve books and numerous professional articles, she founded and directs the Child's Play, Learning and Development Lab (formerly the Infant Language Project), whose goal it is to understand how children tackle the amazing feat of learning language. The recipient of a prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and a James McKeen Cattell Sabbatical award, she is frequently quoted in newspapers and magazines and has appeared on Good Morning America and many regional morning shows. Dr. Golinkoff also speaks at conferences and for organizations around the world about children’s development.

  • No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment

Leave your comment

Guest Friday, 15 February 2019