Building STEM skills through block play

Why block play supports all the skills children need for the 21st century

The child’s perspective on block play

“If you take the child’s perspective, they are not doing science, technology, engineering and math. They are living and learning. They’re engaging with their world and they’re making sense of it.” – Hal Melnick, Course Instructor, Bank Street College of Education

Learning math concepts through block play

“Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are grouped together because they are interdependent on each other,” says Susan Wood from Children’s Center at Cal Tech.

She adds that using this approach is the most inclusive for children and will give them opportunities and choices that include STEM to prepare them for the 21st century skills they will need.

Carolyn Pratt, the developer of the original unit block, saw the idea of a unit as one of the big concepts in mathematics.

Hal Melnick, Course Instructor at Bank Street College of Education, comments, “There's nothing like having the experience of fractional parts and relationships in their history, in their life history, to make my point that math is the study of relationships in the science of pattern.

There's a whole lot of abstract stuff we can talk about later on in life, but it builds from the experience that kids have had with well-organized, well-structured tools like the Pratt blocks.”

A girl lets a wooden cylinder roll down an inclined plane build with wooden blocks

Children learn an amazing amount of science, gravity and balance through block play. Watch the video to see Alia, a three-year-old, discover that she can roll a cylinder, or roll a car down a ramp.

As they work in the block area, children will constantly try to balance things. Eventually they reach the point where they know intuitively that if they add one more shape, it's going to fall. That comes from repeated experience with block building.

Living STEM skills

People often think of technology as the computer or iPad, but simple machines were actually some of the earliest technologies.

The inclined plane, how a car can roll down a ramp, the wheel and the axle - those are early technology and when children realize that, you can build the later skills that they will use.

You live STEM when you engage with tools and materials.

And what better place to do that than a classroom with a knowledgeable teacher who can set up the environment so the kids can engage with the scientific principles and ideas that come from building a structure and finding out when you first build that things fall down, and they’ll keep on falling down.

Learning problem solving with blocks

As they build, kids will encounter problems. If their building collapses, then he or she has to figure out how to reposition their blocks for better balance or build a sturdier foundation.

Two children building an arch with unit blocks

So you're living with the engineering problem, you're living with the technology of the tool, and you're solving a problem.

Early childhood is the time to start the necessary underpinnings for engineering and mathematical ideas.

A powerful understanding

“I think they're beginning to understand that there's always another question, there's always something else to find out. That's power, that's a powerful understanding to have, and we want children in schools and public schools, very diverse children, to have the power of what their ideas are.” – Yvonne Smith, Kindergarten Teacher, New York City Public Schools