The block or construction area is one of the core fundamentals in an early years classroom. It is what we at BarrKinderplay call one of 'The Three Pillars of an Early Years Classroom'. In terms of what to call the area I generally prefer 'block' to 'construction', particularly at the beginning of the year, as it's a good reminder to keep it focused on wooden blocks rather than too many plastic and magnetic toys, which can lead to quicker creations. This is more personal preference but I often use both interchangeably. If you are starting the year with young or new to school children keeping your block area simple to begin with is a good starter. Simple doesn't mean 'mostly empty' but rather enough materials to stimulate not over stimulate. As you go along start adding more materials, objects and even magnet toys etc. as well as taking away materials as needed.
The Basics of Block Play!
The block area has many amazing benefits that educators and parents may not know or easily miss. It isn't just about "playing with blocks" as a trivial or meaningless pursuit. This magical place develops everything from science to language arts. To learn more check out our infograph on 'The Importance of Block Play'.
Knowing how to support children engaged in the block area can be tricky, especially if like me you work in an ESL (English as a Second Language) setting. Children's conversations in play can be a doorway to their intentions and interests and so when you can't understand what they say its like having trying to solve a puzzle with missing pieces.
Sometimes teachers can struggle to support the play (learning) that is happening unless it is directly related to an ongoing project like 'building a city' or 'designing a zoo'. First, it's helpful to get a basic understanding of the stages of block play and how children might use blocks depending on age or current development. Below are the '7 Stages of Block Play' (image sourced from google). For those familiar with schemas you may see some similarities. If not you can learn more about them and download some free posters here.
Take a look of some of these block play pictures below and see if you can identify the stages of block play. Most of these pictures were taken half way during the year so the children have access to a wider variety of materials. I won't tell you the answers!
How did you do?...
The reason I didn't give away the answers is because the most important skill needed for supporting play in the block area is presence and context.Taking a quick picture can look good but to really know what is happening requires careful observations and when needed interaction. This could be joining the play, asking questions or supporting when children encounter a problem.
A Step by Step Guide to
Support Play in the Block Area.
1. The Who
Who is playing? This is needed for documentation but long term it gives you insight into which children enjoy this area and which don't. Is it dominated by boys, girls or do both play here? Then finding the why to these questions.
2. The What
What are they playing? Are they stacking blocks to see how tall until it falls down? Are they making a place (house, zoo, farm etc.)? Often the block area involves a great deal of story telling. Record these conversations. Either write them verbatim (preferably after the play has finished), record the play audio or video/record children retelling the story of what they were doing. Understanding the what can give insights to children's current interests.
3. The How
How are they playing? How are they building/constructing? How are they using the different materials? If there is a group how are they cooperating or not? These questions gives you insight into both the engineering and the physical skills they are using to create and make. The second part will help you determine if more work needs to be done on social development, cooperation and negotiation. These make great circle time or morning meeting discussions.
4. The Why
Why are they playing this? What is the motivation and reason behind it? Why are they using these materials? Why does the story go this way? The why is by far the most difficult and often getting to the answers is a process of trial and error. It's asking the right questions, providing supporting materials like books, other types of construction tools and having conversations.
How you decide to document the play should be based on your preferred style. I could make a documentation template for this or you could find something similar online but every teacher has their preference. Some like a template with columns to write or type in. Some may prefer a mind map style. Others might have a notepad in each area to jot down observations. There is also a preference to digital or handwritten. There is an authenticity to handwritten documentation that makes the words carry more feeling but because I work with language learners digital works better for my team as we can easily translate between languages using google translate etc.
It is important for the children to be able to review and reflect on your observations and documentation. We don't want to interrupt the work being done in play to find the answers to the above questions. Allowing the play to evolve is important and deciding whether to join the play or be an outside observer is a decision that comes from experience.
Putting what has happened somewhere the children can access it is important. In their portfolios, wall panels or area floor books that allows children to reflect on the work (play) they have done, build on from it and talk more about the who, what, how and why.
Things to Avoid in the Block Area
1. Outcome Based Tasks.
"Today in the block area you need to make a boat by following the instructions in the pictures". Activities like this shouldn't be a daily occurrence. You may invite children for such a task at some point but not a requirement for using the block area each day.
2. Block Play Time Limits/ Rotations.
"Group A will play in the block area first then after 20 minutes we will rotate to the next area." Children need time to play (work) and figure things out. Offering a short period of time won't allow them to reap the benefits of block play.
3. Cleaning Everything Up.
Imagine you want to write a book and each day you begin to write your first chapter and someone says "time is up. Time to clean up" and deletes all your progress. Children need time to build on the work they have built from the morning or day before. It can be difficult if you have a small classroom but it's important.
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