Block play is a huge deal at my house. My kids adore building with blocks and I love their enthusiasm because blocks are so open-ended and grow with children, not to mention they are an excellent toy that encourages fine motor development.
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My 11 month old baby enjoys filling up small boxes with blocks and then dumping them out. My recently-turned two year-old loves stacking blocks and knocking them down, while my four-year old makes castles for her peg people. My first grader builds tall, multi-layered structures that include ramps and staircases.
Regardless of the age, the basic block remains an old-time favorite. This is because blocks grow with children and are one of the best open-ended toys.
While they certainly help develop oral language and math skills, (among many, many others), block play is also a very effective way to develop fine motor skills. Like any other skill, the development happens in stages.
Infant Block Play
Infant block play requires accuracy. Baby’s large, rather uncontrolled movements are actually practice in aim as baby’s muscles are strengthened through play. Infant block play may include:
- grasping blocks
- mouthing blocks
- filling small containers with blocks and dumping them out
- banging blocks on the table of other toys
- banging blocks together
Toddler Block Play
Toddler block play requires increased accuracy and a fair amount of dexterity. What may look like “just play”, for a toddler is practice in using the smaller muscles of the hand and arm while accomplishing a set of tasks. Examples of how toddlers develop fine motor skills through block play may include:
- stacking blocks in towers
- knocking down towers
- arranging blocks in rows
- arranging blocks on lines, like going with the grain of wood on the kitchen floor
- crashing toy cars or horses in effort to knock down a tower or wall
Preschooler Block Play
By preschool age, most children have enough dexterity and accuracy to begin to build more intricate structures. They may also build with more intention and will exhibit more purpose in their play. This is because by now preschoolers have mastered the pincher grasp and their fine motor muscles are so much stronger even though they are still developing. Block play that can improve a preschooler’s fine motor skills might include:
- stack tall towers, sometimes even as tall as their own height
- build walls
- build bridges
- build castles, houses, and other buildings
- organize blocks for other play purposes, like laying them out for a road or race track
Elementary Schooler Block Play
By the time a child reaches school age, most have nearly mastered many fine motor skills, so block play serves as reinforcement for building muscle memory. Because of this, many school aged children now have the dexterity and patience to build more intricate structures that require planning before execution. Examples of how and elementary aged child might strengthen fine motor skills through block play may include:
- building structures of noted height and width
- building elaborate structures
- building structures which require extra dexterity, such as stairs, tunnels and long bridges
- building structures with ornamentation and pattern, such as using wooden spools with a wooden ball balancing on top to create spires on a castle
Tips for Encouraging Block Play
With all the “sophisticated” toys on the market that flash, make noise, and have lots of buttons to push, blocks don’t always interest children at first. To encourage block play at your home or preschool, consider some of the following:
- Set up an functional area for block play. (We don’t have a wood floor in our playroom, so I laid down an office mat to give the blocks a more solid flooring).
- Offer a variety of blocks made from different materials and of different colors and sizes. Try foam blocks, Duplo blocks, large cardboard blocks, traditional wooden blocks and small (non-chokable) cubes).
- Offer props to add to the block area, such as peg people, wooden spools, eggs or balls.
- Offer other toys that pair naturally with block play and lend to pretend play, such as cars or animal figurines.
- Provide pictures of real life structures to copy.
- Sit on the floor and build with your child. Use this as an opportunity to model building, pretend play and to encourage conversation.
- When possible, allow for built structures to remain untouched, instead of putting things away after use. Often times children are self-motivated to return to their structure to continue working.
There are so many ways for children to develop and strengthen fine motor skills through playing with blocks. While that is never a child’s intention, it certainly is a great benefit of having a fun and inviting block area.
I am always amazed and intrigued by my children’s creativity while playing with blocks, and I really appreciate how the fine motor aspect of block play is beneficial to my baby as well as my three other, and older, children.
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