Benefits of Block Play

KCCTO-KITS Infant-Toddler Specialist Network

Stephanie Keller

David P. Lindeman, Ph.D.

June 2023

Kansas Inservice Training System

University of Kansas Life Span Institute


The KCCTO-KITS Infant-Toddler Specialist Network is a program of the Kansas Child Care Training Opportunities, Inc. and the University of Kansas Life Span Institute at Parsons and is supported through a grant from the Kansas Department for Children and Families’ Child Care and Early Education Services. However, information or opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the agency and no official endorsement should be inferred.

Letter from the Director

June 2023

Dear Early Childhood Professional,

Block play for children has endless possabilities, children can use their imagionation and create endless hours of entertainment.  Blocks allow for open-ended play and allow children to expand their motor and cognitive skills as well as planting the seeds to build their academic foundation. Blocks are a welcome “toy” that has no age limit.  The time children spend playing with blocks helps them develop a wide varity of skills and abilities.  

Building blocks have been a staple in early childhood environments for years.  As stated above, they offer hours of open-ended learning through play.  The location of blocks in your space indicates if they are, or are not valued.  There are early childhood educators that feel as if blocks take too much supervision and are often used as weapons.  As with all learning opportunities offered to children, if the environment offers good traffic patterns, a variety of quiet and noisy areas, and adequate amounts of materials for the age and number of children in care, many of those worries no longer present themselves as an issue.  Time and space that allow children to engage with the materials and supported by a caring adult, new skills will be obtained including , knowledge, vocabulary, and social skills through working with their peers. 

In this TA Packet you will learn about the seven stages of block building, as children often have  a predictable timeline and sequence in which they meet skills and milestones, and that skills can be gained in no particular order.  You will also get a glimpse into the power of observation and reflection as the person setting the stage for successful block play.

Our goal is that after taking time to read this information, explore the additional resources provided, and possibly even take a KCCTO-KITS ITSN course on block play, that you will continue to enhance your block area and see the endless possabilities of growth in the children in care.

We hope that you will find that the information in this packet is helpful.  Thank you for your interest and your efforts toward the development of quality services and programs for young children and their families.

After you have reviewed the packet, please complete the evaluation. If you would like support in using this information in your work, reach out to an Infant-Toddler Specialist in your area.

Thank you for the work you do on behalf of young children!

David P. Lindeman, Ph.D.
Director, Kansas Inservice Training System

Stephanie Keller
Infant-Toddler Specialist
KCCTO-KITS Infant-Toddler Specialist Network

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Self Reflection - What do you know about Block Play?

1. Blocks have no place in child care because they can be used as a weapon.T   F 
2. Blocks are closed-ended play opportunities.T   F 
3. Block play builds imaginationT   F 
4. There are seven stages of block playT   F 
5. Props should never be added to the block areaT   F 


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Developmental Milestones

Children typically develop in a predictable timeline and sequence. While we know skills do not emerge at the same time for every child, there are general age ranges when we expect certain skills to emerge. We refer to these as developmental milestones. Developmental milestones can help you begin to understand the child’s current skills and what to expect next, helping you plan activities that will support the child as they work at mastering higher level skills. As you begin to think about intentional planning, examining developmental milestones for a child’s age is a good starting point. However, it is important to note that there is variation in development between children, so care should be taken to know what skills the child is already doing, compared to the skills that are listed for a particular age. 

There are many wonderful resources for accessing developmental milestones. The Center for Disease Control’s Learn the Signs, Act Early resources can provide you with developmental milestones for children birth to age five. To access these milestones, go to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Learn the Signs Act Early website, found at the CDC website.  

In addition to the developmental milestones, the Learn the Signs, Act Early website gives you access to:

•    Free materials to order or download
•    1-hour training module for early care and education professionals
•    Milestone Tracker app for parents and professionals
•    Information on what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development
•    Many, many more resources on learning the signs of typical and atypical or delayed development. 

As you examine the developmental milestones that most closely match with the children in your care, you will begin to see predictable patterns of development that can help guide you in your intentional planning of activities to support these developmental steps. 

Practice Check!

Download and print the developmental milestones from above link for Learn the Signs, Act Early. Choose one child in your care. Using the Learn the Signs Developmental Checklist most closely associated with his/her age. (You will use this child as a practice child throughout the rest of this TA Packet.)

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Kansas Early Learning Standards

Another tool that can support you in understanding appropriate expectations for young children is the Kansas Early Learning Standards. These standards can be found at the Kansas State Department of Education website (PDF).

The Kansas Early Learning Standards were revised in 2013 by a group of professionals using the latest research and knowledge base and aligned with the Kansas K-12 College and Career Ready Standards. These standards can be used by early childhood professionals to help guide the creation of purposeful activities within early childhood programs. As you begin to think about intentional planning for young children in your program, review the Kansas Early Learning Standards for more information on the developmental sequence of learning for young children, as well as content that is appropriate for the children in your care.

Practice Check!

Refer back to the ‘practice child’ you chose for the developmental checklist. Using the Kansas Early Learning Standards, find an Early Learning Standard in the approaches to learning standards, social-emotional development, and math areas.  What level does your “practice child” fall into?  Have they made progress throughout the time you have spent with them?

Skills gained through Block Play

Building toys such as blocks have significant cognitive, motor, and academic benefits for children of all ages.  Not only are they fun and exciting, but they help children develop a wide variety of skills and abilities.  They help prepare kids for school, sports, and life. I guess you can say that these toys are the “building blocks” for success!  Open-ended play allows children to express themselves in play freely and creatively, not bound by limitations.  Playing with open-ended materials that have multiple uses and limitless possibilities, such as molding clay, wet sand, paint, blocks and other loose parts, allow for imaginative play.  There are no rules to follow, no expectations, no specific problems to solve, and no pressure to produce a finished product while engaging freely in open-ended play.  Closed-ended activities have a determined outcome, a right answer, and a restriction on individual differences.  Examples of closed-ended activities are single-use toys like puzzles and board games.  A balance of open-ended and closed-ended play enhances the quality of children’s play.

The areas of development in a child that are enhanced due to exposure to blocks are endless.  When we set the stage for success by providing the time, space, materials, and equipment to be successful, fail, and start all over again children gain not only confidence, but are developing their problem-solving skills.  Building with technology devices can be introduced, but as a support tool, however it can’t replace the feel of blocks of all shapes and forms.  Children of all ages and stages of development can play with blocks, and as their skills advance, so will the level of intricate creations ranging from two or three blocks, to castles, forts or cities to extend their play.  While playing with blocks, or other building toys, kids have to learn how to move and manipulate various shaped objects, big and small, as well as having the fine motor control to “click” or place them into the place they are wanting them.  This helps build motor strength as well as visual skills and motor planning.

In an article for NAEYC, Koralek (2015) surveyed staff members as well as Young Children consulting editors by asking:  “What do you think children learn through block play?”  Here are some of their responses: 

  • Problem solving
  • Imagination
  • Self-expression
  • Mathematics
  • Continuity and permanence
  • Creativity
  • Science
  • Self-esteem
  • Social and emotional growth
  • Development in all areas


Problem solving skills

This can be intentional, or in-the-moment as they build and change a block structure.  Children practice with new ideas, and eventually have to decide what they want to make.  Block building gives children the chance to find solutions to problems and experiment with creating patterns.  Children problem-solve when they design roads, buildings, airports, barns, houses, bridges, or any other creations they dream up!


“Children can follow their own plan, or they can share a friend’s vision and work together to create something they never dreamed of” (Koralek, 2015, p. 1). Blocks are something you introduce and help children discover.  Given time, space, and materials their creativity is endless, or open-ended.  Add a basket of measuring tools like tape measures, rulers, pencils, paper…….  If you add different sizes, shapes, textures, and photos of bridges, construction sites, and designs they will extend their play using their imagination.  Easy access to dramatic play props like kitchen utensils, material, saucepans, tins, recycled containers or only a few items that can be carried over to the block area.


Blocks offer many ways for young dual language learners to explore, express themselves, and demonstrate what they are learning across languages (Koralek, 2015, p. 1).  There is absolutely no wrong or right way to play with blocks or even what the definition of a “block” might be.  Every child is unique in the way that they choose to approach the materials in the block area, and through this open-ended play opportunity children can express themselves.  Adding basic materials (both large and small) helps children to expand upon their ideas, renew their interest in block play and also inspires them to try using the foundation blocks and construction materials in many different ways.


Important concepts and skills are practiced and strengthened through block play, including length, measurement, comparison, number, estimation, symmetry, as well as balance (Koralek, 2015, p. 1).  Because it involves measuring lengths, widths, and heights (if only by the eye), block play develops a child’s ability to mentally visualize relationships.  Such manipulations are similar to those used in geometry and algebra during the child’s later school years.  The skills and vocabulary that can be addressed in the block area are numbers and sequencing or one-to-one-correspondence, fractions, classification, size, shape, width, height, length, measurement, area order, space, mapping, patterns, operations, estimating, negative space, adding, and seriation.  There is a common misunderstanding that early math isn’t about much more than counting.  It is about more complex math and STEM concepts including those stated above as well as estimation, proportion, shape, symmetry, patterns, equivalencies, and prediction.  Building with blocks gives young children the chance to think, question, and try to figure out how to solve a problem.  Throughout this play children often discover a myriad of math concepts.  Young children are learning math naturally every time they “do” something with objects, such as blocks.

Continuity and permanence

Block play engages spatial sense and motor abilities; it can be a solo or a group effort; block creations stand for an indefinite period of time (Koralek, 2015, p. 1).  When children are building, testing, and redesigning they continue working on configurations until it is just what they want.  They continue working until they feel it will be the ideal structure.  The lucky kids get to leave it for extended play, which shows permanence.  If you are in a classroom that has space restrictions and has to have children tear down their masterpiece, take a picture and print it so it can be recreated.  Ask open-ended questions about their thoughts and wishes for their structure and help them explore their imagination.  


Blocks and other loose parts can be moved freely by children, to be combined and recombined in countless ways (Koralek, 2015, p. 2).  When children are able to freely express themselves in play the play has no limits.  Playing with open-ended materials that can have multiple uses create limitless possibilities.  Nondescript materials such as cardboard boxes, fabrics, tile, vinyl, carpet samples, strawberry baskets, Styrofoam trays, wallpaper samples, plastic lids, and oatmeal containers or juice cans.  Items you can purchase and add are also limitless, traffic signs, all types of vehicles, maybe even adding in a dollhouse.  A balance of play materials enhances the quality of children’s play.  It has been discovered that the attraction between nonrealistic and realistic play materials is related to the age of the child.  Realistic props, such as the dollhouse and dolls, are more desired by two-and-three-year-olds, which encourage more symbolic play.  Four-year-olds enjoy a blend of realistic and nonrealistic props.  Five-and-six-year-olds engage in more pretend play with nonrealistic materials.  All children love age-appropriate materials which allow for hours of creative open-ended play.  Caroline Pratt, an innovative and revered early childhood educator, designed wooden unit blocks in the 1930s.  She understood that the blocks would engage children’s creativity, captivate their curiosity, challenge them to be problem-solvers, and offer children a tool to collaborate.  


Blocks offer opportunities to test hypotheses and build scientific reasoning (Koralek, 2015, p. 2).  Words that can be introduced in block play that lean toward science are gravity, stability, weights and measurements, trial and error, reasoning skills, and discovery.  The science of block play allows children to experience authentic design challenges, test out multiple solution pathways, work collaboratively with others, and connect block play to their understandings of not only science, but math, engineering, and the arts.  They will look and hypothesize how simple models of roads and structures become functional, 3-dimensional building by adding stabile materials.  They will develop and test design solutions to real-world challenges involving force, motion, and movement.  Their work will extend familiar block play with new design challenges in uprightness, balance, and stability.  


Children discover that they have ideas and that they can bring their ideas to life by creating, transforming, demolishing, and re-creating something unique (Koralek, 2015, p. 2).  By having staff, and caregivers promote imagination, encourage the ideas offered by the children, open-ended questions, as well as a variety of props and blocks children experience success.  Success and genuine praise build self-esteem.  Allowing children time to play with the structures they have built also raises self-esteem and gives a sense of accomplishment.  This allows them time to fully explore their ideas, follow through on them and create additional constructions.  By allowing children to fail, and providing the time and support needed to recreate, they have fun while learning. 

Social and emotional growth

Blocks help children learn to take turns and share materials, develop new friendships, become self-reliant, increase attention span, cooperate with others, and develop self-esteem (Koralek, 2015, p. 2).  Time spent in the block area helps build feelings of competence and promotes awareness of others around them.  As children work together, they will gain respect for the work of others.  As their social skills progress, they will be able to cooperate and work together.  It will progress as children become able to accept that others might knock down the work they created, as well as being able to invite that child to help recreate it.

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Setting up Your Block Area


Building blocks have been a staple in early childhood environments for years.  They offer hours of open-ended learning through play.  The location of blocks in the environment indicates if they are or aren’t valued.  Ideally blocks should be in a corner, or a protected location away from traffic.  Ensure that there is space in the block area to extend play to meet the imaginations of the children who are putting their skills to work.  If space allows, it is great to allow children to be able to expand their play beyond the block area, such as on a circle time rug that isn’t being used.  The larger the space the children are given to interact with blocks open-endedly, the richer the experience will be.  If the number of blocks provided and the space available is adequate, there is no need to formally select the children who will play in the block area.  Instead, there can be freedom of movement in and out of the area. 

Block play can be noisy, so think about the learning areas, or centers, that are near the blocks, will there be a balance of noisy and quiet play?  Typically, the library or cozy spots would not be the ideal area of play to have next to your block area.  Having your block area in an area where children can be noisy, work in cooperative play, and extend beyond their “boarders” makes the ideal space in your classroom or playroom.  According to the Creative Curriculum for Preschool when setting up a block area for 20 children the following items are preferred to be in a block area:  an area rug, 2-3 shelves that hold full unit blocks sets with props, a storage unit for hollow blocks, a full unit block set (390 blocks with 25 shapes), hollow blocks if space and funds allow, brick cardboard blocks (44 piece set), a set of foam blocks, a set of large plastic blocks, and PVC pipes and connectors.  They have the following optional enhancements on the list as well; a set of accessory blocks including window and door blocks, architectural unit blocks, and castle accessory blocks, dollhouses with furniture, and props related to children’s play or study topics.  For example: telephones, wire, paper towel rolls, rubber tubing, tile squares, shells, pebbles, cardboard boxes, play money, packaging materials, and old blueprints if age appropriate (Dodge, 2016) .

Blocks should be stored on low shelves and arranged by shape.  Shelves that are labeled helps children with one-to-one correlation when it is time to pick up.  When blocks and the props you provide to enhance play are all off the shelves and on the floor, it looks overwhelming.  It can make clean-up time a challenge for some children.  When you plan for this and offer specific guidance techniques the process is smoother.  If there isn’t enough space for the props on the shelves, you can store items in buckets or containers near the block area.  Use clean up as a learning opportunity instead of a chore.  This is where an adult inserting themselves into the process can be helpful.  They can help break clean up into chunks, maybe starting with one type of block, then moving to the next size or shape until all of the blocks are stored neatly on shelves. Block play is an essential part of the building process.  Just as you carefully place the blocks to build, you carefully dismantle a structure and sort it into its various shapes.  It’s calming to children.  It helps them learn about organization.  It is respectful for their work and it’s a structure for them to follow that helps them to understand about takin care of things.

Just as you carefully place the blocks to build, you carefully dismantle a structure and sort it into its various shapes.

The gift of time to play and explore is key to helping children develop and move through the seven stages of block play.  When children have sufficient time to become thoroughly familiar with the shapes of the blocks and its props, they can see more things to do with the shape, and build on their imagination. If children are only given 15 minutes to play in any area and then asked to stop the play and move to another area their creativity can be stifled.  Time is structured throughout the day for children in care but building time for play in the schedule allows children to grow in all areas of development.  Sometime children build structures that are so important that they can’t bear to take it down.  If the space allows this is when you could help children write a note, such as “Please do not knock down our building”, or “Please save our house”.  This allows children to respect the structures others have made and realize that the space is temporally off limits.  When children are in the early stages of development, there attention span with blocks is short.  As they develop the skills mentioned earlier, they will work for longer periods of time. 

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Seven Stages of Block Play

Harriet Johnson identified the seven stages of block building (Johnson’s Stages of Block Play, 2021): 

  • Stage 1:  Carrying around blocks, but not using them for construction.  Such as putting them into a wagon or stroller and hauling them around the room.
  • Stage 2:  Building begins with children mostly making rows with similarly shaped and sized blocks on the floor or attempting to stack the blocks vertically.  Such as making a road.
  • Stage 3:  Children begin making bridges using two blocks to support a third, which reflects understanding of spatial relationships.
  • Stage 4:  Children learn to place blocks to make enclosures of different sizes and shapes.
  • Stage 5:  More imaginative structures are built and children develop their understanding of symmetry.
  • Stage 6:  The naming of structures introduces dramatic play and their block play becomes artistic.
  • Stage 7:  Children engage in symbolic play as blocks are used to represent things they know, such as cars, airplanes, houses, and cities, as well as to stimulate dramatic play activities.  

As mentioned earlier children typically develop in a predictable timeline and sequence they continue to grow and meet these skills in a varying order, they do not have be achieved in one particular order.

Practice Check!

Think again about the “practice child” you have selected, where are they in the seven stages of block building?  Are they developing in “order” or “varying” in the sequence of mastering their skills?  How are you adjusting your environment based on your observations?  What are you adding to the block area to extend the play?  What are you removing from the block area as they have become bored or no longer interested in using that item?

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The Power of Observation


Utilizing what we know about developmental milestones, brain development, relationships, and interaction techniques, we know that they all have a role in being a good observer.  When we take a step back and observe behaviors and actions from many angles it helps us learn more about each child in care.  

Consider the following questions:


  • Are children circling the room and not spending any amount of time in one interest area? 
  • Are they spending time in only one interest area?
  • Are they making friends and participating in cooperative play? 
  • Are they exhibiting behaviors that are harmful to other children, such as hitting, kicking, pulling hair, or biting other children?
  • Is there a particular time of the day that is stressful to the child? 
  • As for the block area, are they spending time building with blocks? 
  • Over time are they creating more intricate structures and designs?
  • Are they participating in cooperative play? 

Also ask yourself:

  • Where are they spending their time?
  • How do I know if they are being challenged with the activities and materials provided?

Through the power of observation, you will be able to answer all of these questions. 



After observing and identifying concrete, observable behaviors and actions, you must also reflect on what the behaviors and actions might mean.  The knowledge we gain from observations help build a more complete understanding of how to help that child learn and thrive.  With careful observations and reflections, you will be making informed decisions about where the child is developmentally, their interests and dislikes, as well as what you need to add to an interest area to promote growth and development.

Consider the following questions:

  • Are the child’s behaviors and actions in line with the developmental milestones?
  • Have I made the adjustments to the environment to provide appropriately challenging activities and materials?
  • Am I offering activities that builds confidence?
  • Am I offering helping the child build their self-help skills?
  • Are they showing signs of greater imagination?

As we become better observers of children’s development, daily routines, interests, and interactions we are able to identify the most effective strategies and supports needed to help children successfully engage in the classroom.  There are many developmentally appropriate observation checklists available, find the one that best meets the goals and mission of your child care.  Invest the time and energy to watch and reflect the children in your care.  It will allow you to make decisions based on the strengths and weaknesses of the children.

Many people however are not sure about adding blocks, as they feel that they may become weapons, or just add to the chaos on the environment.  Supervision, time and space are key to having successful learning opportunities with blocks of all shapes and sizes. Insert yourself into the play when you see it going into a direction that could result in harming another child.  Redirect the child to another block or prop, as questions to promote cooperative play.

Successful block play does not just happen. Adults must set up a safe, welcoming, and organized block area that allows all children to explore freely. Teachers and caregivers must respect blocks as an important learning tool for young children and foster block exploration for girls as well as for boys. This requires that we are all knowledgeable about the stages of block building and the inherent learning that children gain from frequent block play.

Check out this comprehensive site regarding setting the environment for block play at Pocket of Preschool 

Did you find a new idea for your environment?  Did you find a prop that you hadn’t thought of adding to the block area?  Do you have photos and journals in your block area?


Self Reflection - What do you know about Block Play?

1. Blocks have no place in child care because they can be used as a weapon.T   F 
2. Blocks are closed-ended play opportunities.T   F 
3. Block play builds imaginationT   F 
4. There are seven stages of block playT   F 
5. Props should never be added to the block areaT   F 


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Reference and Resources





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