Roberta Golinkoff (left, with a colleague at UD) and postdoctoral researcher Brian Verdine have co-authored a study with colleagues at Temple University that shows the role that simple toys like blocks and puzzles can play in providing a foundation for learning math, science and other STEM subjects.

The building blocks of learning

Playing with blocks may help children's spatial and mathematical thinking

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1:11 p.m., Sept. 26, 2013--With the advent of tablet apps for children, parents may be tempted to forgo purchasing those blocks and puzzles that have been staples in children’s toy chests for centuries. A study by researchers at the University of Delaware and Temple University, published in Child Development, suggests that would be a big mistake. 

Playing with blocks may be crucial for helping preschoolers to develop “spatial thinking,” or envisioning where blocks go in relation to each other as they build. Deciding whether a block goes over or under another block, or whether it is aligned or perpendicular to it, are just the kinds of skills that support later learning in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), according to the research team of Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Brian N. Verdine at the University of Delaware and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Nora Newcombe at Temple University. 

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“What this study tells us is that parents and caregivers should make sure their kids have experiences that feed into their spatial skill. Simple toys like blocks and puzzles offer kids a foundation for learning subjects like math and science,” said Golinkoff, who is a professor of linguistics, cognitive science and psychology, and the Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Chair in the School of Education at UD.

In the study, 3-year-olds of various socioeconomic levels were asked to reproduce six block structures. As shown in Figure 1 (click arrow to the second image above), children were given a block structure and separated blocks and asked to copy the structure. While this may look like a simple task, 3-year-olds have difficulty with it. Notice that the pips on the block invoke counting and measurement skills and judgments about the orientation of the blocks.

Children’s burgeoning mathematical skills also were tested using a measure developed for 3-year-olds that focused on a wide range of skills, from simple counting to complex operations like adding and subtracting. The researchers wanted to know whether there would be a link between the ability to copy block structures and early mathematics. Much prior research has shown strong links between spatial and mathematical reasoning in older children, but not in children prior to starting school.

Block skill did indeed predict mathematical skill: Children who were better at copying block structures were also better at early math. The study also found that by age 3, children from lower-income families were already falling behind in spatial skills, likely as a result of more limited experience with blocks and other toys that require children to engage in spatial and mathematical thinking.

Lower-income children may also lack some of the words in their vocabulary that would help them reflect on these block structures. While the children themselves were not tested for which spatial terms they knew, parents of low-income preschoolers reported using significantly fewer spatial words (such as “above” and “below”) with their children.

Blocks are affordable and enjoyable, and they’re easily used in preschool settings. And for low-income preschoolers, who lag in spatial skills, such play may be especially important. “Research in the science of learning has shown that experiences like block building and puzzle play can improve children’s spatial skills and that these skills support complex mathematical problem-solving in middle and high school. Just think about how we use diagrams — grounded in space — to understand all sorts of school subjects,” explained Verdine, a postdoctoral fellow at UD. “This is the first research to demonstrate a similar relationship in preschoolers.”

The study was funded by grants to Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek from the National Institutes of Health and from the National Science Foundation via the Spatial Intelligence Learning Center (SILC) at Temple University.

Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek have led several studies that underscore the importance of simple toys and play in the way kids learn. The research team has been a driving force behind the “Ultimate Block Party,” engaging tens of thousands of children and parents in playful learning in New York City, Toronto, Canada, and Baltimore. Golinkoff says a possible 2014 event is now under discussion.

Article adapted with permission from the Society for Research in Child Development Inc.

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