Building Character Through Block Play

Why should early childhood educators be passionate about block play?

| June 2013

Building Character Through Block Play

We live in a fast-paced society fueled by technology. Young children now have access to computers and other “screens” early in their lives.  As preschoolers, many are adept at entertaining themselves with engaging, virtual characters who teach them letters, numbers, and even feelings.   Children appear to be happy and having fun. But, as a teacher, wouldn’t you like to look deeper and gain a greater understanding into the budding character of the child? Would you like to help children develop the strength of personality needed to sustain them throughout their lives? The block corner is one place where this growth can unfold--and with a lot of fun in the process.

How block play can develop character

Block play provides experiences that foster emotional and social development as children work together in a respectful and cooperative way. They share a sense of joy in their communal accomplishments. While solving structural challenges, they learn to concentrate while gaining mastery in the arts of persistence, patience, and overcoming frustration. Children also have many opportunities to be rewarded with the sense of pride and satisfaction that come as they develop confidence and competency. They come to understand that their friends may have different perspectives on “construction” and they learn cooperation and tolerance along the way.

In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough offers a helpful perspective on the qualities that lead to success both in learning and in life. Tough recognizes that character--expressed through “grit,” curiosity, self-control, conscientiousness, optimism, and persistence--is even more important than cognitive skills in fostering success and satisfaction in life.  Block play provides a structure and foundation for children to learn to persevere, develop self-control and delay gratification, expand curiosity, gain self-confidence, and learn to overcome failure. Through exploration with unit blocks children become competent learners in all areas of development: cognitive, physical, social and emotional.  A teacher who is well versed in the use of unit blocks understands that block play can help strengthen a child’s developing character.  She then finds opportunities to use the block corner to challenge and foster social and emotional growth.

Opportunities for learning

Block play is fun and engaging. Unlike screen time, unit blocks offer children experiential learning in the real, physical world.  The smooth, sensual feel of the wood is satisfying to the touch; the sturdiness of the blocks allows the child to use them freely without breakage; and the open-ended quality of block play provides an opportunity for creativity and cognitive development to soar.  Children are drawn to unit blocks knowing that they are using real materials with weight, form and function.

Block play can also be challenging and frustrating--from the youngest child struggling to balance a tower, to the more experienced builder creating a complex structure.  As children move through the various stages of building (stacking towers, spanning bridges, enclosing areas, creating designs, and re-enacting their world) they have many opportunities to experiment, make mistakes, problem solve, and find solutions.  An intentional teacher will provide students with the support to persevere with a structural or social challenge.  The teacher helps children have the “grit” to set goals, carry out plans, be resilient in the face of failure, and maintain a positive attitude.

Opportunities for observation

Block corners also provide wonderful and varied opportunities for teachers to help the child to become a better learner.  Teachers who are skilled and astute observers of children in the block corner can use this knowledge to develop character building skills. How does the child approach the block corner?  Does he work consistently, need time to warm up, or lose interest?  How does the child deal with challenges? Does she try different approaches, repeat ineffectual solutions, take risks, give up and/or show frustration, ask for help?  How does the child verbalize while building? Can she articulate what she has created, describe without pointing or saying, “over there”?  What stage of building is the child engaged in? Has it progressed during the year?  Is imaginative play taking place, and is it a story line created by the child or mimicked from the media?  Does the child work alone, with peers, or in small groups? Does the child tend to be a leader, follower, or a collaborator?  The lens through which we observe children in the block corner will be a window into other learning areas--whether it be getting stuck on word attack skills or solving social issues.

A richness of experience blossoms when adults show interest and are actively engaged with children in the block corner.  A teacher’s role can range from providing a non-verbal presence that helps a child continue to focus on his structure or contain his emotions, to verbally supporting a frustrated or upset child, while encouraging him to try again.  Skilled teachers use language to encourage the child to think of potential solutions rather than give the child the answer.  “I wonder why your structure keeps falling down?” or, “I’m noticing that you keep trying the same block.... can you find a different block to bridge that span?”  “Tell me about who lives in the castle? Hmm, can they get from one room to the other?”  Through conversation, teachers discover a wealth of information about a child’s conceptual development and language capacities.

The block corner

Block corners are busy places.  It is here that children grow in their motor skills, eye-hand coordination, and planning abilities. They have opportunities to develop self-control as they learn about their own bodies in space.  They gain immediate feedback from the environment, carefully navigating between structures and peers in tightly crowded areas. Teachers will find frequent opportunities to foster and demonstrate empathy and help children become more aware of the effects of their behavior on peers.

Unit block play is for all children.  It provides the experiences and strengthens the “character muscles” that children need to become competent, persistent, creative, and optimistic members of our society.


Cartwright, S. “Block Play: Experiences in Cooperative Learning and Living” May 1995.

Cuffaro, H. K. “Block Building: Opportunities for Learning”., May 1995.

Schreiber, Jean. “Understanding the Block Corner”. The Parents League of New York Review, 2009.

Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September, 2012


I was invited to speak to a board that was considering putting a private school in the church and one of the ages was preschool and kindergarten. I stressed the important of blocks and Block play. There was more concern for children getting hurt instead of understanding the importance of blocks.

I explained that it helps develop the children's imagination, helps them understand the way gravity works, the concepts of sizes and shapes of the blocks and how they can be stacked to form different things. It helps the children with their fine motor skills because they need to grasp the blocks and place them where they want. It helps develop the sense of working with peers and working to solve problems. Counting and learning the shapes are part of the proficiency that students need to learn.

The children demonstrated their use of imagination and created a little town and made interesting designs for the building. The board saw that the students were working together to figure out how and where to locate certain buildings. When they were finished not one student got hurt by others throwing the blocks or making them fall down. Instead they saw how the students played with each other and created a wonderful town.

I love having blocks in my classroom. - Lyn Cornacchia

Social Emotional Development, Block Play, Teachers Role as Facilitator