All Blocks are Not Equal

All Blocks are Not Equal

Take the time to choose the best. Poorly made blocks are frustrating for children to build with. Unit block measurements (“equivalencies”) allow the child to explore, even if unwittingly, the mathematical ideas of multiples or fractions. Be sure your sets of smaller blocks matches your medium or large ones in terms of dimensions and proportions. In other words, make sure they are modular.

Suggested Equipment for Block Building

From Play Equipment for the Nursery School by Jessie Stranton, Alma Weisberg, and the faculty of the Bank Street School for Children, 1962, rev, ed. New York: Bank Street College of Education.

Number of blocks recommended for this age group

(Based on a group of 15-20 children. Numbers in parentheses refer to the labels in the block shapes diagram)

3 years 4 years 5 years
Half units (1)
72
82
96
Units (2)
180
192
250
Double units (3)
140
152
200
Quadruple units (4)
48
48
64
Pillars (5)
32
64
80
Small cylinders (6)
20
32
40
Large cylinders (7)
20
24
32
Circular curves (8)
12
16
16
Elliptical curves (9)
8
16
16
Pairs of small triangles (10)
16
22
36
Pairs of large triangles (11)
16
32
36
Floor boards—11” (12)
12
26
50
Roof boards—22” (not illustrated)
0
12
20
Ramps (13)
8
12
16
Right-angle switches (14)
and/or X switches (not illustrated)
0
4
8
Half pillars (not illustrated)
0
12
16
Y switches (15)
2
2
4


Block accessories

The materials suggested below demonstrate the range of materials children use to augment not only the block buildings but also their play with the structures. While the figures, animals, and vehicles are sufficiently varied to fulfill children’s more recurrent themes, often a child’s keen observation and commitment to realistic detail require other supplementary materials. There is often a deeper satisfaction and a greater variety of imaginative themes when materials are suggestive of many uses rather than of a single function.

Rubber, plastic, or wooden figures

(adults about 5” high)

  • 2 varying ethnic families: mother, father, boy, girl, baby, grandparents
  • 12 community figures: farmers, workers, doctors, firefighters, etc.
  • 16 farm and domestic animals: cow, bull, calf, 2 horses, colt, sheep, ram, lamb, 2 pigs, piglets, cat, dog, etc.
  • 1 set zoo animals

Vehicles

(plastic, rubber, or wood is recommended for younger children: round-edged metal is safe for older children)

  • 2 sets trains and tracks (for older children), 2 sets interlocking trains or sandtrains (for younger children)
  • 23 small cars, airplanes, buses, assorted trucks, and tractor (according to environment). Axles should be enclosed to prevent loss of wheels.
  • jumbo trucks (if floor space permits)
  • 6 small and large boats (tugboats, barges, liners, ferries, etc., according to environment)

Additional accessories

Adapted from Blockbuilding: Some Practical Suggestions for Teachers by Maja Apelman, n.d. New York University, Project Head Start In-Service Training Program. Mimeographed.

Colored cubes are often considered part of the basic block accessories. Children love to decorate buildings with them. Any incomplete set of small blocks such as parquetry blocks or large dominoes should be saved for the block corner. Also, any other assortment of odd small blocks or spools may be put into boxes for decorative use with buildings.

For 5-year-olds and older:

  • Samples of tiles, linoleum squares, rugs. Children like to cover floor areas and walls of buildings and make decorative patterns with these.
  • Shells, such as scallop or clam shells. They can be used for plates when a child builds a restaurant (with food made of plasticine) or for decorative purposes.
  • Pebbles, small stones, little sticks for cargo on trains, boats, and trucks. Children can collect these on walks to a nearby park.
  • A variety of small containers. These are useful for all sorts of things, such as keeping money in a store or providing water for animals in a farm or zoo.
  • A variety of lumber scraps, especially flat pieces. They are used for roofs, wide bridges, etc.
  • Furniture. Keep items very simple. They can be made at the woodworking bench. (Commercially bought furniture is either very expensive or very flimsy!) Children, however, also should be shown how to improvise furniture from the blocks themselves.
  • Familiar signs, such as “One Way,” “School Crossing,” “Bus Stop,” etc.
  • Tongue depressors for attaching signs or making fences. They will stand up if stuck into a small piece of plasticine.
  • Thin pieces of rubber tubing. Tacked to a cylinder block, they can make a simple gas pump. Children will think of other uses.
  • Excelsior. It makes good hay for farm animals.
  • Trees. Construction is simple: Let the child draw a tree, cut it out, then staple it to a tongue depressor and stick it into a piece of plasticine so it will stand up.
  • Dry-cell batteries with lights.
  • Any old piece of machinery, especially if it has switches or knobs that turn. An old TV antenna, a broken clock, earphones, or a radio will be used by the children in countless ways. Be sure to remove hazardous parts.
  • Magazine pictures of bridges, roads, constructions, or city scenes. Mount them on cardboard and have them available for individual children who may need clarification when reconstructing something they have seen. Display the pictures on walls in your block area if your room layout permits this.
  • Signs. Children love to have signs written for their buildings. If saved and stored in a simple manner, they can be used again, and children may begin to recognize some of them. This is an excellent early reading activity.

"Buy generously. When there aren’t enough blocks for children to complete the structures they have in mind, it not only frustrates them, but also constrains them developmentally." -Pam Phelps

Five-year-olds are very capable and independent. If manila and colored construction paper, a few crayons, scissors, masking tape, and string are always available in or near the block corner, the children will begin to make their own signs and draw trees, people, and other things they need, thereby using their imagination in a constructive, purposeful way.

Note: The above lists are simply suggestions. Obviously, no teacher will ever put out all these accessories at once. However, the larger your supply of odds and ends, the better you will be able to help the children in the block corner when they begin to need accessories for specific purposes.

Block storage

(From Stranton et al. 1962)

Block cabinets should be sturdy, on a 3” baseboard, made of ¾” x 12” lumber, with a solid back, and divided into cubicles for orderly storage. The overall dimensions for a block cabinet for fifteen 3-year-olds might be 4’6” wide x 3’ high.

Cubicles should be 11 ¾” high, with small cubicles (13” wide) for half units, cylinders, ramps, floor boards, and pillars; medium cubicles (18” wide) for trains, cube boxes, triangles, switches, curves, arches, small cars, and boats; large cubicles (24”-37” wide for units, double units, quadruple units, roof boards, animals, people, and other accessories.

Blocks should be presented on shelves in such a way that their mathematical relationships can be perceived in terms of sizes and categories of shapes. They should be arranged; with the following considerations:

  • Large blocks and large vehicles should be near the bottom for safety in removal and for proper weighting of the cabinet.
  • Each shape and type of accessory should have its own space for easier location and orderly pickup.
  • Where quantity is sufficient, the most popular shapes (units, double units, quadruple units) should be divided to encourage building in front of different parts of the shelving. Younger children and novices tend to build immediately in front of the shelves.
  • Longer and lower cabinets (or two smaller cabinets) help to disperse the areas in which children build.
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  • Sage

    I find your recommendation for 23 small cars/vehicles to be interesting. I wonder where the number 23 comes from.

  • Virginia Carlson

    I have the same questions in regard to numbers of things, i.e. 16 farm animals, 6 small and large boats

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Comments (2)

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  • Sage

    I find your recommendation for 23 small cars/vehicles to be interesting. I wonder where the number 23 comes from.

  • Virginia Carlson

    I have the same questions in regard to numbers of things, i.e. 16 farm animals, 6 small and large boats

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