As a former preschool teacher and new mom, I wanted to introduce my son to blocks as early as possible.
I began introducing him to small cube blocks during infancy. Still, as he reached toddlerhood, I was intrigued and curious about his evolving block play needs. My experience with block play involved 3, 4, and 5-year-olds. I kept coming back to the question: how do infants and toddlers play with blocks, and what can they learn? Let us find out the answer to that question together.
Blocks provide young children with many opportunities to learn and engage with the world around them. Perhaps you have wooden, foam, or cardboard blocks in a basket somewhere in your home that goes untouched. Maybe you feel frustrated because all your child seems to do with blocks is dump or knock the items all over the floor. My goal is to identify the typical progression of block play for infants and toddlers.
Block play pairs well with books; therefore, I will share books that you can check out from your local library or purchase to extend and sustain engagement. Block play can support young children in developing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) skills. It also supports language and literacy acquisition, social-emotional skills, social studies understanding, and gross and fine motor movements. All aboard, full STEAM ahead on the blocks and books train!
Let’s begin with a look at the stages of block play. These stages are a general baseline for most children. Children may not progress through the stages in order. The stages in this list are combined from multiple sources.
- Stage 1: Discovering blocks
- Stage 2: Carrying blocks
- Stage 3: Stacking blocks
- Stage 4: Making bridges
- Stage 5: Making enclosures
- Stage 6: Combining bridge and enclosures
- Stage 7: Imagination and refinement
- Stage 8: Patterns and symmetry
- Stage 9: Naming of structures/ structures to represent things that a child knows
- Stage 10: Using structures for pretend play
Typically, children will progress through the first three stages from infancy into toddlerhood. Infants and toddlers are natural scientists and engineers. STEAM skills come as second nature to children from birth into toddlerhood. Infants and toddlers engage in the scientific inquiry process by exploring a new object such as a block, doing something with the block to see what happens, and then continuing to try repeatedly. No screens are necessary for the technology component of STEAM.
Books and blocks are considered technology. Infants and toddlers are born engineers. They constantly seek out solutions to problems in their environment. Block discovery, carrying, and stacking can introduce infants and toddlers to early spatial awareness skills. Below are six book descriptions and experiences for infants and toddlers with the art component of STEAM.
- Book Description: “Blocks by Dr. John Hutton” is the first book I would use with infants as young as six months to begin introducing blocks into play. Adorable illustrated children walk readers through many basic ways to engage with a variety of blocks. Shape blocks, colored blocks, counting blocks, and letter blocks are included. Children can listen along as the blocks go boom or choo-choo like a train. Children can watch as blocks are stacked tall, and blocks are knocked over with a crash. Tip: Create a block train for or with your young child. Place two-cylinder blocks underneath a rectangle block. Watch how it can roll. Perhaps stack blocks on top of the rectangle.
- Book Description: In “Baby Says by John Steptoe,” a toddler watches his older brother build a block structure from his crib. The toddler does all he can to get his brother’s attention. Then he knocks over his brother’s structure! The older brother is upset but patiently helps his toddler brother build with him. A tale of brotherly love and block play. Tip: Encourage young children to use the book’s block structure as inspiration for their own block structure. Perhaps your infant or toddler can build with an older sibling or family member? You can always fill in as your child’s block play partner!
- Book Description: In “Touch Think Learn Homes,” follow along and explore different types of homes worldwide. Take a look at a castle with a princess holding a sword, a tent with a young girl holding a flashlight, an igloo with a young boy cooking over a fire, and more. Tip: As we spend more time at home these days, this book could help inspire young children to create unique structures for stuffed animals or dolls to live. It starts with using blocks.
- Book Description: In “Stanley the Builder,” join Stanley, an adorable hamster, as he uses his construction trucks and tools to build his rodent friend, Myrtle, a new house. Stanley uses a bulldozer, excavator, crane truck, cement mixer, hammer, and paintbrushes to complete the house with his rodent friend, Charlie. If your child hasn’t read a book about Stanley already, they are sure to fall in love with him and his sweet friends! This is a great book to read to a toddler before or during block play. Tip: Encourage your toddler to use different types of trucks, cars, vehicles, and tools to help build a structure of blocks just like Stanley!
- Book Description: In “Baby Loves Structural Engineering,” a young boy builds blocks in different shapes. His structures were similar to famous architecture like The Arc de Triomphe in Paris, The Big Ben in London, and the White House Washington D.C. The young boy in this book builds a sturdy house for his three little pigs to ensure that the wolf cannot knock it down! Tip: Print out pictures of the buildings from the book. Another option is to print images of buildings from around the world that people have visited from your family. Encourage your child to build using similar shapes or design patterns.
- Book Description: In “Rosa’s Big Bridge Experiment,” a young girl, and her friends go through the beach’s scientific thinking process to explore making different types of bridges. The children work together to figure out the most effective kind of bridge to achieve their goals. Tip: This book can be a great way to introduce children to building structures with other siblings or friends. Children can also learn how to persevere even when their first attempt at using building blocks does not yield their expected result. Practice using different materials as well as blocks to make bridges of all kinds.
Note: If your child never touches the basket of blocks you have, perhaps think about organizing them differently. An open shelf unit with each block shape in its own space can really help children to make decisions during block play.