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How to Use Blocks to Teach

Sunday, December 04, 2011 - 11:23 PM

Kyle Spencer’s article in The New York Times about the renewed enthusiasm for using blocks in teaching did a good job showing the popularity of blocks for children of all ages.

As an educator who believes in the importance of a balanced curriculum — one that holds open-ended work times as high up on the priority list as reading, writing, and mathematics — I have long used block work to integrate each of these disciplines quite naturally for young children.

My former work at the City and Country School set a foundation for my understanding of teaching and working with blocks. A few years back, I brought this work to the Chapin School, by creating a block program for their first graders. Now that I am at Packer Collegiate Institute, I have been working with the Lower School faculty to find ways to connect block work within our social studies curriculum.

We use blocks to deepen the understanding of concepts/topics, as well as a time for children to explore, make choices and work with their hands. Here are some tips for teaching children ages 5 to 8 with blocks in the classroom or at home, though the methods can certainly be adapted for children as young as 3.

Visit the place the children will be building.

This is an important piece of the recipe for nurturing invested builders. For example, if you are studying transportation, visit Grand Central Terminal. If you are studying the services within a neighborhood, a visit to the local fire station would provide vivid first-hand research.

With clipboards in hand, the children can document what they see with illustrations or writing. Because they know building will begin back in the classroom, the children are active researchers. The trip has a purpose.

Once back in the classroom, the children can use photographs (taken on their trip), books and images from the Web. These visual images keep the building work focused, realistic and grounded as the children aim to represent what they have seen.

The conversations about their structures will be more specific as well. After visiting the fire station, (and looking through photos from the trip), I mentioned to a student, “Well, I noticed that the fire station had one large garage door for the fire truck, and one small door for the firemen to enter and exit.” (The child had only the garage door represented in his building.)

This concrete feedback helps children stay on task.

Encourage the social aspects of block building.

The children can become well versed in communicating their ideas, and planning with others. These conversations inspire deeper thinking and often present challenges for children working together.

When working with peers on a common structure, sticky social situations are common. Children learn the art of problem solving, negotiating and making compromises. And so, the social-emotional component of child development is folded seamlessly into this work.

Allow dramatic/imaginative play in the block area to evolve naturally.

Opportunities for children to hook into the building are based on real-life experiences. The children connect with the structure, and stories organically thread through the building process.

A child building a grocery store is overheard saying: “Where’s the pasta in this store? Pasta is my favorite food! The pasta should go next to the sauce!”

By using imagination and pretending to be in the structure, the builder is encouraged to think critically and make deliberate decisions about how this building is actually used.

Provide a variety of materials (in addition to the blocks themselves).

Plasticene, cardboard, buttons, keys, carpet remnants — almost anything! — can help to bring block buildings to life. Children add these materials to their structures to represent color, texture and objects within the space.

These materials are hugely attractive to children, and can often reignite enthusiasm in the block area when things seem to be going stale.

On one occasion, I remember heading to Chinatown for extra bold and shiny paper. Once in a basket, on a shelf in the block area, this new material did just the trick! Before I knew it, conversations about balloons, medicine bottles, and shiny taxis were streaming through the air.

Check in with the children, and ask questions.

The goal is to elicit ideas from the children inspire deeper thinking and understanding about their structure.

For children who are stuck or need refocusing, creating a checklist with the child of what is needed for the building can help this open-ended work to have specific direction.

Remember, the building process is a way for the children to internalize and express what they know (or think) to be true about the world around them. In observing children during this explorative process, one can gain much insight into how children think.

Keep the buildings up.

If the children are interested, industrious and invested in their work, keep the buildings up for as long as you see fit. It is best if the children build momentum by working on their structure(s) consistently, rather than building on a more sporadic schedule.

Invite people to tour the buildings.

This is a way for children to share their work with their peers, parents, and school community.

This moment provides closure for the building experience. The children have the opportunity to present, articulate and inform their visitors about their work.

Children learn that their work is important and worthy of an audience — a lesson they will not forget during their next build!

Pick up the blocks.

“Pick up,” a phrase coined by the City and Country School, is used deliberately. The children are not expected to “clean up” the blocks (as in scrubbing), but rather pick them up and return them to the shelves for future use.

Just as there is a process to writing (first draft, revising, editing, final draft, etc.), there is a process to building.

It begins with the trip(s) and ends with picking up the blocks. Not only do the children learn about the process, but there are a lot of mathematical concepts to learn and explore when children pick up. The children can estimate the amount of blocks used, stack in groups of 5's, categorize blocks by shape or size, etc.

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