Playing with blocks may help children's spatial and math thinking

September 24, 2013, Society for Research in Child Development

Playing with blocks may help preschoolers develop the kinds of skills that support later learning in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), according to a new study by researchers at the University of Delaware and Temple University. And for low-income preschoolers, who lag in spatial skills, such play may be especially important.

The study is published in the journal Child Development.

More than a hundred 3-year-olds of various socioeconomic levels took part in the study. Children who were better at copying block structures were also better at early math, the study found. Among the skills tested were whether children could figure out that a block belongs above or below another block and whether they aligned the pieces.

The study also found that by age 3, children from lower-income families were already falling behind in , likely as a result of more limited experience with blocks and other toys and materials that facilitate the development of such skills. And parents of low-income reported using significantly fewer words such as "above" and "below" with their children.

Blocks are affordable and enjoyable, and they're easily used in preschool settings. Giving children—especially those from low-income families—such toys to play with can help them develop skills that will have long-lasting effects on later STEM-related , the researchers suggest.

The children's spatial skills were assessed using a block-building task. Math skills were examined using a measure developed for 3-year-olds that focuses on a wide range of skills, from simple counting to complex operations like adding and subtracting.

"Research in the science of learning has shown that experiences like block building and puzzle play can improve children's spatial skills and that these skills support complex solving in middle and high school," explains Brian N. Verdine, a at the University of Delaware and one of the study's authors. "This is the first research to demonstrate a similar relationship in preschoolers."

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