Why toy blocks rock: The science of building and construction toys
© 2008-2016 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved
It's universal, and it's powerful: Toy blocks and other construction toys can change the way kids think. Building projects stimulate creativity, and sharpen crucial skills.
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). And construction toys seem ideally suited to the purpose. Studies suggest they can help kids develop
- motor skills and hand-eye coordination,
- a capacity for creative, divergent thinking,
- social skills, and
- language skills.
Moreover, children 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.
Here I review the cognitive benefits of playing with toy blocks. I
also offer tips for making block-play more stimulating and rewarding.
For more evidence-based information, see my article about construction and STEM skills, and this Parenting Science guide to educational toys and games.
Toy blocks promote spatial skills
Several studies have reported links between spatial skills and construction play.
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).
Similar links have been reported by others (Oostermeijer et al 2014;
Richardson et al 2014; Jirout and Newcombe 2015), and the results make
sense. Building structures encourages a child to test spatial
relationships and mentally rotate objects in the mind's eye. Such
practice might lead kids to develop superior spatial abilities, and an
experimental studies offer evidence for this idea.
When a group of
kindergartners were randomly assigned to engage in guided construction
play, these kids subsequently outperformed their peers on tests of
spatial visualization, mental rotation, and block building (Casey et al
And more recently, researchers tested the effects of a
particular kind of building block play called "structured block play."
This is what happens when we ask kids to reproduce a structure from a
model or blueprint, and it appears to boost spatial learning.
a group of 8-year-olds participated in just five, 30-minute sessions of
structured block play, they showed improvements in mental rotation -- the ability to rotate and analyze 3-D shapes in the "mind's eye."
addition, brain scans revealed changes in the way their brains
processed spatial information. Kids in a control group did not exhibit
these changes (Newman et al 2016).
Toy blocks and math skills
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 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).
research has revealed links between a preschooler's ability to recreate
specific structures and his or her current mathematical skills (Verdine
et al 2013). Investigators report similar results for tweens and
adolescents (Oostermejier et al 2014; Richardson et al 2014). A study in
the Netherlands found that 6th grade students who spent more free time
in construction play performed better on a test of mathematics word
problems (Oostermejier et al 2014).
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
Toy blocks: Do they promote language development?
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).
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.
Construction play for lifelong learning: Older kids benefit too
We often associate construction play with
toddlers, but we've no reason to think the benefits end when children enter
school. As I note in
this article, a recent pilot study suggests that first graders who engage
in daily construction activities can boost their mathematics ability, spatial
reasoning, and executive control.
Moreover, as mentioned above, studies of tweens
and adolescents link construction play with superior performance on tests of
spatial skills and mathematics (Oostermeijer et al 2014; Richardson et al
KEVA planks at the Long Island Children's Museum (image: LIWriter)
But I think the most compelling evidence comes
from everyday experience. We know that people learn from practice, and builders
who create small-scale structures must cope with the same 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.
If you want to get an intuitive grasp of how the forces of tension and
compression work, hands-on experience with construction is invaluable.
So it seems pretty obvious that older kids also benefit from building. The key to keeping them engaged is finding age-appropriate, stimulating materials. LEGOs appeal to many, but my personal favorites are these planks:
KEVA Contraptions Plank Set , and
KAPLA 200 Blocks Natural Unfinished Wood Pine Planks with Storage Bin and Guide Book .
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.
Tips: Getting the most from your toy blocks
Engage young children by participating yourself.
The research above suggests that kids get more from block play when someone demonstrates how to build with them.
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.
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.
Challenge kids with specific building tasks.
Free-wheeling block play is important. But as I explain here, 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) and the Equilibrio Game.
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.
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):
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.
JJ and Newcombe NS. 2015. Building blocks for developing spatial
skills: evidence from a large, representative U.S. sample. Psychol Sci.
Kamii C, Miyakawa Y and Kato Y. 2004. The development of logico-mathematical knowledge in a block-building activity at ages 1-4. Journal of Research in Childhood19: 44-57.
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.
NS, Levine SC, and Mix KS3. 2015. Thinking about
quantity: the intertwined development of spatial and numerical
Interdiscip Rev Cogn Sci. 6(6):491-505.
Oostermeijer M, Boonen JH and Jolles J. 2014. The relation between children's constructive play activities, spatial ability, and mathematical word problem-soving performance: a mediation analysis in sixth-grade students. Frontiers in Psychology 5 Article 782.
Pepler DJ and Ross HS. 1981. The effects of play on convergent
and divergent problem solving. Child Development 52(4): 1202-1210.
Richardson M, Hunt TE, and Richardson C. 2014. Children's construction
task performance and spatial ability: Controlling task complexity and
predicting mathematics performance. Percept Mot Skills. 119(3):741-57.
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.
A. 2013. Deconstructing Building Blocks: Preschoolers' Spatial Assembly
Performance Relates to Early Mathematical Skills. Child
Dev. 2013 Sep 23. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12165. [Epub
ahead of print]
Wolfgang CH, Stannard LL, and Jones I. 2003. Advanced constructional play with LEGOs among preschoolers as a predictor of later school achievement in mathematics. Early Child Development and Care 173(5): 467-475.
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.
Image of minecraft Legos by minecraft 21115 / flickr (attributions and no deriv)
Image of girl with Legos by Baltimore Public Library / flickr
Content of "Toy Blocks" last modified 12/16