Toy blocks and construction toys: A guide for the science-minded

© 2008-2013 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved

Toy blocks and other construction toys might not be as flashy as battery-powered robots or video games.

But as developmental psychologist Rachel Keen notes, parents and teachers "need to design environments that encourage and enhance problem solving from a young age" (Keen 2011).

Construction toys seem ideally suited to do that, and they may also help children develop

  • motor skills and hand-eye coordination,
  • spatial skills,
  • a capacity for creative, divergent thinking,
  • social skills, and
  • language skills.

Moreover, kids can integrate their own constructions into pretend play scenarios. There is also evidence that complex block-play is linked with advanced math skills in later life.

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Here I review the cognitive benefits of playing with toy blocks. I also offer tips for making block-play more stimulating and rewarding.

For other tips about honing your child's intellectual skills, see these articles on intelligence in children.

And for more information about developmental toys, see this list of 5 smart toy investments and the Parenting Science guide to educational toys and games.

You may also want to visit my Amazon bookshop for gift ideas that include some of my favorite construction toys. A portion of your purchase will help support this site.

Toy blocks promote spatial skills

In one experimental study, researchers administered the spatial skills subtest of the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI) to a group of preschoolers. Next, researchers presented kids with blocks and tinker toys.

Kids in the treatment group got training in how to use these toys and were encouraged to build. After 6 weeks, kids were tested again. Preschoolers in the treatment group showed significant improvement. Those in the control group showed no change (Sprafkin et al 1983).

Another study (Caldera et al 1999) has reported that preschoolers who scored better on the spatial skills subtest of the WPPSI

  • showed more interest in block play, and
  • were more skillful at reproducing complex block models.

Toy blocks and math skills

Block play is linked with better math skills, too. A longitudinal study tracked kids from preschool to high school (Wolfgang et al 2001). Researchers found that 4-years who played with blocks in more complex ways were more likely to achieve high math scores in high school.

We might reasonably assume that the link is caused by higher IQs—-i.e., that smarter preschoolers are both more likely to engage in complex block play and more likely to achieve in high school math classes. But researchers found that the association remained significant even after they controlled for a child’s IQ.

Toy blocks and 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.

Because kids can put together blocks in a variety of ways, block play is divergent play. And divergent play with blocks may prepare kids to think creatively and better solve divergent problems.

In one experiment, researchers presented preschoolers with two types of play materials (Pepler and Ross 1981).

  • Some kids got materials for convergent play (puzzle pieces).
  • Other kids were given materials for divergent play (chunky, block-like foam shapes).
  • Kids were given time to play and then were tested on their ability to solve problems.

The results? The kids who played with blocks performed better on divergent problems. They also showed more creativity in their attempts to solve the problems (Pepler and Ross 1981).

Toy blocks and cooperative play

Research suggests that kids become friendlier and more socially-savvy when they work on cooperative construction projects. For example, autistic kids who attended play group sessions with toy blocks made greater social improvements than did kids who were coached in the social use of language(Owens et al 2008;Legoff and Sherman 2006). Other research on normally-developing kids suggests that kids who work on cooperative projects form higher-quality friendships (Roseth et al 2009).

Toy blocks: Do they promote language development?

Maybe so.

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.

After six months, each parent completed a follow-up interview that included an assessment of the child's verbal ability (the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories).

The results?

Kids in the group assigned to play with blocks

  • scored higher on parent-reported tests of vocabulary, grammar, and verbal comprehension, and
  • showed a non-significant trend towards watching less TV

It’s not clear why block play had this effect. It could be that kids who spent more time playing with blocks also had more opportunities to talk with their parents. Possibly, the parents in the treatment group felt more motivated to report language improvements.

Alternatively, block-play itself might help kids develop skills important for language development--like the ability to plan and recognize cause-and-effect sequences.

Tips: Getting the most from your toy blocks

Get down on the floor and play with your child.

The research above suggests that kids get more from block play when someone demonstrates how to build with them.

Challenge kids with specific building tasks.

Free-wheeling block play is important. But as I note in this article, it's likely that kids also reap special benefits from trying to match a structure to a template. To get things started, suggest a type of structure to build. You can use pictures and diagrams to inspire or guide a construction project. For older kids, check out Carol Johmann's excellent book, Bridges: Amazing Structures to Design, Build & Test (Kaleidoscope Kids) or the Equilibrio Game.

Stimulate pretend play with character toys and other accessories.

The experiment on language skills involved giving kids blocks and appropriately-scaled accessory toys, like people and cars. Such toys give kids ideas for construction projects (e.g., a barn for a toy cow) and encourage pretend play.

Combine block play with story-time.

Researcher Janie Heisner used toy blocks and block- accessories to illustrate parts of the stories she read to kids in a preschool (Heisner 2005). After each story, the kids were given access to the props. This tactic seemed to increase pretend play. It also gave kids ideas for things to build.

Encourage cooperative building projects.

As noted above, cooperative building can help kids forge better social skills (Roseth et al 2008). For other tips, see these social skills activities.

Remember that fantasy is a valuable aspect of play.

Construction play seems so obviously mechanical, it's easy to think only of the development of practical engineering skills and forget the importance of mind-bending fantasy. As I've written in this blog post, however, kids may become more creative and inventive when they are exposed to stories about magic. So if your child's block-play seems more about Harry Potter than building bridges, he's likely still reaping important cognitive benefits.

More reading

Do construction toys inspire kids pursue careers in science, technology, math, or engineering? See my article about toy blocks and STEM skills.


References: Toy blocks and construction toys

Caldera YM, Culp AM, O'Brien M, Truglio RT, Alvarez M, and Huston AC. 1999. Children's Play Preferences, Construction Play with Blocks, and Visual-spatial Skills: Are they Related? International Journal of Behavioral Development; 23 (4): 855-872.

Casey BM, Andrews N, Schindler H, Kersh JE, Samper A and Copley J. 2008. The development of spatial skills through interventions involving block building activities. Cognition and Instruction (26): 269-309.

Christakis DA, Zimmerman FJ, and Garrison MM. 2007. Effect of block play on language acquisition and attention in toddlers: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 161(10):967-71.

Heisner J. 2005. Telling Stories with Blocks: Encouraging Language in the Block Center Early Childhood Research and Practice 7(2).

Ferrara K, Hirsch-Pasek K, Newcombe NS, Golinkoff RM and Shallcross Lam W. 2011. Block talk: Spatial language during block play. Mind, Brain, and Education (5): 143-151.

Keen R. 2011. The development of problem solving in young children: a critical cognitive skill. Annu Rev Psychol.62:1-21.

Legoff DB and Sherman M. 2006. Long-term outcome of social skills intervention based on interactive LEGO play. Autism. 10(4):317-29.

Pepler DJ and Ross HS. 1981. The effects of play on convergent and divergent problem solving. Child Development 52(4): 1202-1210.

Roseth CJ, Johnson DW, and Johnson RT. 2008. Promoting Early Adolescents' Achievement and Peer Relationships: the Effects of Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Goal Structures. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 134, No. 2: 223-246.

Sprafkin C, Serbin LA, Denier C and Connor JM. 1983. Sex-differentiated play: Cognitive consequences and early interventions. In MB Liss (ed), Social and cognitive skills: Sex roles and child’s play. New York: Academic Press.

Stiles J and Stern C. 2009. Developmental change in young children's spatial cognitive processing: Complexity effects and block construction performance in preschool children. Journal of Cognition and Development (2): 157-187.

Wolfgang, Charles H.; Stannard, Laura L.; & Jones, Ithel. (2001). Block play performance among preschoolers as a predictor of later school achievement in mathematics. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 15(2), 173-180.

Content last modified 12/13