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Building Blocks: Back to Basics

Talk about old school. Building blocks, those indestructible wooden mainstays of elementary classrooms since the 1900s, are finding new favor as a way to boost student learning, particularly in math and science.

At oversubscribed workshops in New York City, lawyers and other parents are on the floor, creating castles and toppling towers, the New York Times reports (11/28). At one, a self-described “block consultant” cautioned parents against over-involvement with their child’s projects . “Don’t rush to help them with structural challenges,” she said. “You don’t have to ask them a million questions. Just sit with them and notice.”

Many progressive schools have long sworn by building blocks. Now, concern that academic pressures and technology have squeezed play out of youngsters’ lives has more traditional schools exploring them.

A New York City charter-school network advertises fully outfitted block labs alongside the chess program and daily science classes. The International School of Brooklyn is developing a program using blocks to reinforce foreign-language acquisition. And a large section of the kindergarten floor at Avenues, a for-profit school slated to open next year in Greenwich Village, will be devoted to a block center.

Research suggests there’s merit in this retro approach. Studies dating to the 1940s indicate that blocks help children absorb basic math concepts. A 2001 research report tracked 37 preschoolers and found that those who had more sophisticated block play got better math grades and standardized test scores in high school. A 2007 study by the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital, found that those with block experience scored significantly better on language acquisition tests.

Classroom experience suggests building blocks may help struggling students. The New York Times article gave the example of a struggling second grader at a Bronx charter school who went to the block corner after an apple-picking field trip and built an incredibly complex structure, a tractor engine. She also was able to talk about how all the parts move. The school’s co-director told his staff a few days later: “We need to be looking at this student in a very different way.”

Whether Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, and Erector Sets will enjoy a similar revival remains to be seen.

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