Learning & Development: Blockplay - Stacking up

Daniel Spry, Pauline Latchford and Annabel Hollis
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A deeper understanding of children's blockplay and significant improvements in practice in different types of settings were discovered in a unique research project by early years consultants Daniel Spry, Pauline Latchford and Annabel Hollis.

Using Government money allotted to help early years settings improve their resources, we offered blocks and training to 96 childcare providers with a view to developing this as an action-based research project. Our aim was to explore how blockplay can support sustained shared thinking across all areas of learning and development for children aged two to five, particularly boys.

The project has enabled practitioners to:

  • explore their knowledge of child development, child-initiated learning and adult-child interactions
  • gain confidence to reflect on practice
  • improve understanding of the holistic nature of children's learning.

Two groups were involved in the project. The first, comprising 48 pre-schools and day nurseries, were offered in-depth training. They received:

  • a full school set of Community Playthings unit blocks
  • a full school set of Community Playthings large hollow blocks
  • a camera to record information for their projects
  • a digital photo frame to share experiences with parents and to document children's creations.

The second group, 48 childminders, received training (a one-day course and evening cluster group meetings), a set of Community Playthings mini-unit blocks, and a camera.


Like many practitioners, we early years advisers were aware of blockplay, but failed to appreciate the breadth of learning that stems from it. What opened our eyes to the potential of blockplay was reading Exploring Learning: Young Children and Blockplay, about the Froebel Blockplay Project (1987-90) and watching 'Foundations', a DVD in which candid footage of children's blockplay demonstrates explanations by Tina Bruce, Margy Whalley and others.

Next, we visited Community Playthings, where its education team shared thoughts on the place of blockplay in early education and we were able to observe blockplay within the community's own nursery. Further reading also deepened our understanding (see References).


The training focused on several key areas:

Enabling environment - Practitioners learned that their room's set-up affects the quality of blockplay. The depth of involvement and learning increased dramatically when blocks were presented in a sheltered area. They also reflected on:

  • how accessibility of the bricks affected the quality of children's play
  • the addition of resources
  • the need for space.

Gender - Understanding that boys and girls develop differently helped practitioners realise that learning is manifested in various ways. This discussion gave a deeper understanding of creative thought and enabled practitioners to see the blocks as a vehicle for expression.

Adult support - Practitioners came to appreciate the importance of sensitive observations to determine the level of adult intervention, including the recognition that children don't always need adult support.

Stages of blockplay (Johnson, 1996) - We considered the seven stages of blockplay and how they relate to the EYFS Development Matters:

Stage 1 Blocks are carried around but not used for construction

Stage 2 Building begins

Stage 3 Bridging

Stage 4 Enclosures

Stage 5 Children become more imaginative

Stage 6 Naming of structures for dramatic play begins

Stage 7 Children use blocks to represent structures they know

Previously, many practitioners had assumed that unless children were constructing with blocks, they were not using them. After the training, they were able to make more informed observations and identify examples of children engaging with blocks across all areas of learning and development.


The training, coupled with introduction of blocks into the settings, prompted practitioners to rethink their provision and resources. Consequently, children are now more likely to listen to each other, take turns and show higher levels of involvement in each other's narratives.

Practitioners found that through blockplay, children became better able to regulate disagreements, boys and girls were more likely to play together, and children developed an awareness of risk and how to manage it.

There have been some unexpected outcomes. Pre-schools sharing a school site which historically had poor links with the reception class found that children who transferred to school still wanted to use blocks. Their continual requests led reception teachers to approach the pre-schools and ask to share the blocks, thus improving communication and child transitions.

One practitioner observed that, in the same way that a child may scribble their unique mark on a drawing, certain children always started with the same recognisable base construction. The construction could develop differently each time, but the starting point was always similar and became a signature of that child's play.

Practitioners noted that in the outdoor block environment, other toys such as bikes and cars became less important to children. The blocks supported a richer diversity of play, holding children's interest over longer periods of time.

Other practitioners noted:

  • The observations taken in this project and from each child's learning journey show the links that can be made to all areas of learning with just this one activity.' (Emma Hughes, Pine Lodge Nursery)
  • 'The blocks appear to have a calming effect on children who are demonstrating challenging behaviour.' (Sarah Crank: Horns Mill Pre-school)
  • I'm left wondering exactly how a little wooden block has managed to change the dynamics of our pre-school!' (Claire Doyle, Jigsaw Curzon House Day Nursery)

We might add that we are now in our third year. We have expanded the remit to work with reception classes in our own and other authorities, and we get invited to run workshops at conferences locally and nationally.


When enrolling on a Cheshire County Council blockplay course, I had no idea of the change that would be sparked within my setting, writes manager Claire Doyle.

First, the physical changes: we now have a designated blockplay area with accessible shelving and a large mat where most of the blockplay takes place. This area is at one end of the room where there is no traffic, so children's constructions are safe. It is clearly visible from the entry and is very attractive to the children.

We have also brought in a trolley of natural materials because we found that children love to use these to extend their play. Their creations can stay up as long as they wish, although they usually dismantle them at the end of the day. (However, in the covered outdoor area with the big hollow blocks, the constructions carry on and on and on.)

Even though we have a designated blockplay area, children take blocks into all the other areas of the room as well, and we encourage that.

There have been remarkable behavioural changes since acquiring our blocks. For instance, one little boy used to have an 'anti-girl' attitude. He would not sit near a girl or play with a girl. The blocks totally broke that barrier, which astonished us because nothing had worked before.

He started to build with girls as well as boys, and eventually he would sit beside anyone at snack time. A month into blockplay, he was even in the home corner, using blocks as food for the dolls!

We have seen other barriers broken too, because blockplay transcends differences in age or background. Older and younger children work co-operatively. Even if children do not speak the same language, they understand each other as they create with blocks. They develop ideas together. And when I hear children converse as they play, I realise how blockplay is assisting communication in our setting.

The blocks give open-ended opportunities for play; their basic form enables them to be as complex as the imagination of the child using them. Blocks are now the main play focus for most of our children because of their ability to transform into anything, from a park bench to a baby, or just material to shift from place to place. It's interesting - we have some coloured bricks at home, but the colour actually limits the play in some ways. My son felt he had to have all the blue bricks together and arguments took place. With the neutral colour of our wooden blocks, we don't have that problem.

There isn't any child the blocks don't suit - whether a child's tendencies are creative, reflective, productive or attentive, the blocks appeal to them in their own way.

The key to getting the best out of this resource is accessibility. Blocks need to be seen. We organise our blocks to showcase the different shapes and sizes. This empowers children to find the block they want without digging for it. Putting away the blocks has proven a highlight for some children! I think the feeling of achievement seeing the shelf back in its full glory gives a sense of satisfaction.

I now spend many a weekend at the nursery with my own children, creating magnificent structures on my days off. We all (including me) love blocks.


  • Biddulph, Steve (1997) Raising Boys. Thorsons
  • Community Playthings (2005) 'Foundations: the Value of Unit Block Play' (DVD)
  • Community Playthings (2008) 'I made a unicorn!'
  • Community Playthings (2008) 'Simple Materials, Rich Experiences: the Value of Open-Ended Play' (DVD)
  • Early Education (2005) 'Supporting Young Children's Sustained Shared Thinking' (DVD), training materials by Marion Dowling. Esmee Fairbairn Foundation
  • Gura, Pat (1992) Exploring Learning: Young Children and Blockplay, edited by Pat Gura with the Froebel Blockplay Research Group, directed by Tina Bruce. Paul Chapman Publishing
  • Holland, Penny (2003) We don't play with guns here: war, weapon and superhero play in the early years. Open University Press
  • Kent County Council (2004) 'Writing in the Air: Nurturing Young Children's Dispositions for Writing'
  • Moyles, Janet R (1989) Just Playing? Open University Press
  • Primary National Strategy (2007) 'Confident, capable and creative: supporting boys' achievements', DCSF.

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