Developmental Block Play

Here at NUA Sparrow, each classroom features a large, low construction table and many baskets of blocks and building materials. These similar tools are used quite differently by the children in each classroom. Though we all know children develop at different rates, it’s fascinating to see how similar trends in block play follow along developmental lines. Below, I group them by grade, but that is only for ease of description.


During Open Choice time in the kindergarten room, children build cities, zoos, race tracks and space ships. Their structures tend to spread horizontally across the table, and are created as vehicles for imaginative play. The conversations surrounding this building work sound something like this:

“This is the barn. ‘Moo, moo. Yummy grass. I’m the cow. I’m eating all the grass.’ Hey! That’s my block! I was going to use that block! Give that back!” Negotiation ensues, a resolution is reached, and the barn becomes a rocket ship.

First Grade

First graders working in the construction area during Independent Learning time begin to build more elaborate structures, though the focus is still on imaginative play. They tend to stick with a theme for the duration of their learning time. In first grade, you might overhear:

“The knight is crossing the drawbridge. Clomp, clomp, pshht … Ahhhh! Pshht, pshh, pshht! He fell in the water and the dragon is coming to get him! Ahhh! Hurry! Swim away! Ahhhh! Spsh, spsh, pchooo!” In other words, lots of sound effects.

Second Grade

In the second grade, though there is still an element of dramatic representation (this is a school, this is an elevator, this is a skyscraper) the focus shifts to the structure itself, and there is great joy and persistence in building very tall towers, over and over again. They will often collaborate, one child below passing blocks up to a child on a chair to place them up high. In second grade, you might hear something like this:

“Be careful! Move that piece over so it won’t wobble. I think it will be more stable if we put another block in the middle. Maybe we need a stronger base. I think we can make it touch the ceiling!”

Third Grade

This year, we’ve seen a shift in many of our older children away from tower building and into elaborate domino-like tracks with smaller blocks. They are exploring more deliberately the notions of physics: balance, fulcrum, stability, motion, directionality. Their complex tracks travel up steps, around corners and through tunnels, and at the end of every Independent Learning time, the class is gathered around the table for a “knock down,” when the starting block is tripped to see if the entire track follows suit in a predictable way. These conversations sound like this:

“That curve is too sharp. It won’t continue that way. It’ll just stop.”  “These Lincoln Logs don’t work well because they’re cylinders.” “See? I made it so it only goes one way. If I accidentally knock over one of these blocks, it won’t keep going and ruin the rest.”

As they grow and hone their visual-spatial and problem-solving skills, it will be interesting to see what our Sparrow children do next!

For an interesting article on block play and how it’s being used in other classrooms, check out this article: With Blocks, Educators Go Back to Basics.

By Alexis Ahrens


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