When somebody mentions construction play--kids building with wood blocks, Lego bricks®, Mega Bloks®, or recycled
materials--you might think of children being creative. Designing their own structures. Making something new.
That sort of play is exciting and beneficial for development. As I explain elsewhere, block play may foster a wide range of abilities, including motor skills, spatial skills, language skills, and divergent problem solving.
But not all play is free-wheeling. There is another way to have fun with construction toys, and it might help children develop a special package of skills.
It's called structured block play, and it's what happens when children try to recreate a construction by consulting a model or
Kids must analyze what they see, perceive the parts
that make up the whole, and figure out how the parts relate to each other. To
be really successful, kids also need to think quantitatively,
and be able to rotate geometric shapes in the mind’s eye (Casey and Bobb 2003).
To see what I mean, imagine that we present a young child with some
plastic, Lego-like bricks and ask her to reproduce this design:
It seems simple, but consider what she’s got to do.
She needs to select three types of brick – one
with 4 pips, one with 8 pips, and a third with 12 pips.
She needs to attach the shortest brick so it
sits, perfectly aligned, on one the edge of the longest brick.
She needs to attach the medium-sized brick to
the other end of the longest brick, but let it hang out over the edge, so that
two pips of the medium-sized brick are not resting on anything.
Verdine and his colleagues (2013) tested more than 100 three-year-olds with a model like this, only 40% of
the children were able to match the design perfectly. For other, more complex
patterns, the completion rate was under 10%.
This one wasn’t mastered by any child:
Why? The three-year-old brain exerts less
executive control, and has less working memory capacity – which means kids find
it harder to keep track of several different things simultaneously.
In Verdine’s experiment, kids made more errors on designs that incorporated a greater number of bricks. They also made more mistakes when designs required positioning bricks in more than one direction.
In addition, many kids didn’t seem to
recognize the importance of counting pips to figure out if the bricks were
aligned properly. This might reflect the fact that preschoolers have trouble
thinking about an object in multiple ways at once--for instance, thinking of a
brick as both a building unit and as something that can be subdivided into
several smaller units (Diamond et al 2010).
So it’s hardly surprising that young children don’t perform
on these tasks as well as adults do. Their brains are still developing.
performance isn’t merely a question of age. It also depends on experience.
For instance, in observational studies, kids who spend more free time playing with puzzles or building blocks score higher on tests of spatial ability (Jirout and Newcombe 2015; Levine et al 2012).
Other research has reported that boys outperformed
girls in spatial tasks, but only among children from middle- and
higher-socioeconomic backgrounds (Levine et al 2005). Among kids from low-income homes – where
opportunities for construction play may be more limited – there was no gender
difference. Researchers speculate that high-income boys reap the benefits of two environmental advantages:
greater access to expensive construction toys, and
more social encouragement to play with such toys.
There is also the
testimonial evidence of adult scientists and engineers. Engineers frequently
say construction toys inspired their careers.
“Legos are a good introduction to communicating ideas with physical
objects," notes Tiffany Tseng, an
engineer in the MIT Media Lab. “Putting things together and taking them
apart got me interested in how things work, and by the time I was an
undergraduate, I knew I wanted to be an engineer."
Given all the metaphors about Lego bricks used in scientific research – on topics ranging from nanoparticles to
synthetic biology—it seems likely that construction toys have inspired people
in many other fields too. In fact, building things for fun seems to be
intimately connected with real-world achievement.
In an American survey
of high-achieving college graduates, adults holding degrees in STEM fields (science,
technology, engineering, or mathematics) were "far more likely than the average
American" to have extensive experience with "hands-on" crafts and hobbies,
including woodwork, mechanics, and electronics. Individuals reporting a
lifelong participation in such activities were more likely to have produced
inventions that yielded patents (LaMore et al 2013).
But correlations don’t prove causation. Kids with strong
spatial skills are probably more attracted to toys and pastimes that involve
construction, analysis, and blueprints. That doesn’t mean that structured block
play causes intellectual improvements. What’s needed is experimental evidence,
and such evidence is accumulating.
For example, in a recent brain scan study, Sharlene Newman and her
colleagues assigned two groups of 8-year-old children to participate in a
directed play sessions (Newman et al 2016).
One group would engage in structured block
other group would play the word game, "Scrabble." But before the intervention began, the researchers tested the children's
baseline spatial abilities by asking them to perform a mental rotation
task. The kids had to look at letters of the alphabet and determine whether they were flipped ("mirrored") or
merely rotated. As the children performed the task, their speed and
accuracy were recorded. In addition, the researchers measured their
brain activity by functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.
were no differences between groups at baseline. The kids had been
carefully matched for gender, age, mathematics test scores, parental
education level, and prior amount of spatial play. But after just
five, 30-minute sessions -- spread over a period of approximately 12
days -- something had changed.
When the researchers re-tested the
children's mental rotation abilities, they found that kids in the
structured block play group showed statistically significant
improvements in speed and accuracy. Moreover, their brain scans revealed
increased activity in areas linked with spatial processing -- a pattern
consistent with the possibility that these kids were learning to solve
mental rotation problems in a new way (Newman et al 2016).
It's a single study, and there were only 14 kids in each group. It
needs to be replicated before we draw any conclusions. But the results
jibe with the outcome of an earlier experiment where kindergartners were
assigned to build certain structures -- like walls of a specified
height -- with blocks (Casey et al 2008). The kids who participated
appeared to experience a subsequent boost in spatial ability, as
measured by their scores on the spatial portion of an IQ test (the
Case closed? Not yet. We need more research -- randomized,
controlled studies -- to establish causation.
But in the mean time,
there is good reason to think that structured block play has
intellectual benefits. It
makes sense that copying models would improve a child’s ability to
spatial relationships. We learn by doing.
And so far, the empirical
points in the right direction. If you are going to spend money on toys,
construction toys seem like a wise investment. Play alongside your child, and be sure to use spatial language as you consider together how to orient your pieces. Studies show that kids pick up on our use of language, and this may help their develop their spatial skills (Borriello et al 2017).
Construction play has been linked with other benefits besides math and spatial skills. To read more about it, see my article about building with blocks. There you will find evidence-based tips for helping children learn more from block play.
For more information about honing your child's spatial skills, see this list of evidence-based tips.
References: Lego bricks, construction toys, and the benefits of structured block play
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