The Power of Block Building

By Casey, Beth; Bobb, Barbara | Teaching Children Mathematics, October 2003 | Go to article overview

The Power of Block Building


Casey, Beth, Bobb, Barbara, Teaching Children Mathematics


The ability to build complex structures with blocks is a powerful tool that can benefit all children. This article presents research on the importance of block building in developing spatial reasoning and explains the mathematics underlying block building. As an example of how teachers can systematically incorporate mathematics into block-building activities, this article describes elements of a new book on block building, Sneeze Builds a Castle (Casey, Paugh, and Ballard 2002). This book is part of a series of storytelling and mathematics supplementary books, 'Round the Rug Math: Adventures in Problem Solving, written with the support of a National Science Foundation grant and designed to facilitate spatial reasoning in young children (Casey, in press).

Why Is Block Building Important for Children?

Most early childhood teachers already recognize the value of block building. They know that it helps children develop motor skills, balance, fantasy play, social skills, eye-hand coordination, organizational skills, and more. That is why almost all early learning centers and kindergarten classrooms include blocks for children's free play and exploration. Although this kind of open-ended activity is an important component of block building, we propose that a more systematic approach to block building will have the most positive effect on children's future mathematics achievement.

Today's climate of raising standards, increasing standardized testing, pushing skills to earlier levels, accountability, and so on may make it difficult for early childhood teachers to defend block building's importance as a mathematical endeavor to parents and to a world that expects mathematics to be about number, algorithms, counting, and worksheets. Even teachers may not be aware of the important mathematics that children can learn through block building.

A Look at the Research

The research on block building is surprising. Preschool children who are able to build complex structures with blocks have a better chance of mathematical success in middle and high school, even taking into account students' IQ levels, social class, and gender (Wolfgang, Stannard, and Jones 2001). The positive impact of early skill at block building emerges in seventh grade and continues through high school, resulting in higher mathematics grades and test scores. The block-building skills of high-ability high school seniors provide additional support for this research (Bassi 2000). Seniors who built architecturally complex structures showed higher performance on the mathematics subtest of the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Research shows evidence of gender differences in the block-building skills of middle school and high school students, Boys build more architecturally sophisticated structures than girls do (Bassi 2000; Pezaris et al. 1998). Furthermore, gender differences in other types of spatial skills may underlie gender differences in mathematics achievement among high-ability college and college-bound students (Nuttall, Casey, and Pezaris, in press). Strong evidence exists supporting a relationship between spatial skills and mathematics achievement. This suggests that early intervention to develop spatial skills is needed, particularly for girls.

Research that relates block-building skill to mathematics achievement is good reason to have more structured problem-solving activities in the block area (Bassi 2000; Wolfgang, Stannard, and Jones 2001), especially if it helps girls and boys benefit equally from these experiences, but other mathematical reasons to incorporate block building into the curriculum exist. When children work with blocks, they sort and classify them based on their geometric properties relating to shape. They also can develop skills in the areas of estimation, measurement, patterning, part-whole relationships, visualization, symmetry, transformation, and balance.

Increasing Mathematical and Spatial Sense through Block Building

Great developmental differences exist in children between the ages of four and seven, and these are reflected in their block-building skills (Johnson 1984; Reifel 1984). …

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