An Obsession With Block Play



Blocks and Building

I was in the classroom on Friday morning dropping off some dramatic play materials I had found through garage sales and spent some time making adjustments to the learning area for block play. In my small classroom finding space for large hollow blocks has been a challenge, but the value is too high to exclude this important area. Actually if you know me you would probably say that I have an obsession with block play. But this is because of the huge learning opportunities that emerge from this centre.

A little side job that I enjoy is designing learning environments for preschool and kindergarten classrooms. Although this is totally done for the love and satisfaction of design, a couple of teachers decided to give me gift certificates this year from our local teacher store. I used them to purchase classroom resources, which helped me to purchase the six new hollow blocks.

Setting up the learning area
Three key considerations for the block area are; sufficient space to accommodate several children, can they build safely without interfering with other children and is there enough space to store the blocks. 
In my room block play attracts the largest number of learners, usually around eight to ten, so I have dedicated an area 10 by 10 feet of expandable space. Typically the children use all of the hollow blocks and then integrate unit blocks into their structures. The unit blocks provide a less stable structure but happily ensure that creative solutions are sought. For the same reason, I placed it beside the windows so that they could enjoy lots of natural sunlight. I also hung a bulletin board beside the space to display photos of their structures and little notes. The other wall has a white board for sketching design plans and ideas.

Acquiring a block collection
When choosing blocks invest in the best quality, even if it means a four  year plan to acquire a class set. I focused my first year on unit blocks, slowing building a class set, and only began to acquire hollow blocks the end of my second year. A good warranty, continued access so that you can build your collection and a hard wood like maple grown on the east coast will ensure success. I purchase my blocks through Community Playthings. They deliver free to anywhere in the US (except Alaska and Hawaii) and through Louise Kool and Child in Canada. 

Because blocks can transform into so many things, when setting up a new room with a small budget, I always choose blocks over dollhouses, house centres or puppet theatres. These are all important drama pieces but blocks are easily used to create these pieces and so much more (store, airplane, doctor office....).

Locating a block centre space
When choosing where to place the block centre I wanted to ensure that it was not a pass through to other areas. The rest of the classroom is very open and children do not need to go through the block area to reach activities or resources. This reduces accidental knock downs and the disappointments that accompany those. Of course accidents still happen but because they are less often, the children can cope with their frustration.

Storing blocks
I have an agreement with the school custodian. As long as they build on a dedicated space he will clean around it. To provide a visual boundary I purchased a large plain carpet, but they often build past it so he pretty much stays out of the block area. 
Periodically we tidy it all up so that the rug can get a good vacuuming

Because structures often stay up over several days I don`t worry too much about shelving for the large hollow blocks and instead focus on shelving for unit blocks and open shelving for the accessories. I put pictures on the shelving for the unit blocks to help with cleanup  The hollow blocks are standing against the wall waiting for the children to arrive and build their first structure. I`m sure that for the rest of the year they will remain on the carpeted area as part of some amazing structure. 

Special features
Last year I found a used loveseat for a great price and added it to the block centre. There are always children who love to observe and comment on the block building, but don`t actually enjoy building structures. These children are often the decorators who come in after the structure is built to add interest using smaller blocks, fabric remnants and other resources from the classroom. Last year we had food delivery, a hospital nursery and a 
ship for animals added by these very creative students.

Routines
Clear, consistent routines always help establish a safe and fun space. Discussing and practicing how to handle blocks, saving displays, tidy up and sharing resources takes a big investment of your time at the beginning of the year but is has to be done to ensure continued success. I use the guided release model for this which involves lots of modeling, working together and finally releasing them to do the work independently. Clean up is a lot of work and is often the primary reason kindergarten teachers don't 
like block play, but a good investment of your time ensures 
success throughout the rest of the year.

Suggested materials
Collections often include; large wooden blocks, unit blocks, tree blocks, construction toys like tinker toys or duplo, a train set, animals like dinosaurs, farm or wild, string, fabric remnants, vehicles, paper, clipboards and pencils. Ensure that your expectations allow children to bring resources from other classroom centres to integrate into their play such as puppets, food, boxes or dress-up clothes (capes, vests, hard hats...). 

Finally, allow children time to engage in block play. Appreciating the value of play and recognizing the skills play builds should help you to commit large chunks of time dedicated to self-initiated projects. Time also enables the teacher to observe, extend and record the learning and thinking.  

Record the learning
Consider using photographs, interviews and videotaping to create a record. Displaying the photos creates a permanent record and provides an opportunity for reflection, goal setting and pride. Knowing what skills develop through block play will make it easier for you to observe and make note of student growth. Last year my husband bought me an ipad for Christmas and it has really transformed my assessment practice by providing easy access to concrete samples through photos and the accompanying conversations with learners.

Thanks for letting me blog about my favourite play!

Liz

1 comment

  1. Hello Liz. Thanks for sharing this beautiful weblog. I am also a teacher in Phoenix kindergarten and love my job so much. I love to teach my kids with creativity. I think with this weblog, I can enhance my creativity. Thanks a lot !

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