Walk into my house on any given day, and you will find yourself at what I’m beginning to consider the world’s longest-running block party. My 1-, 2-, and 5-year-olds will all be busy to the point of distraction, happily playing away with blocks. They’re usually not building together, mind you (sometimes they’re not even in the same room), but each one will be doing his own thing, concentrating intently, and having a blast.
And if they’re not using blocks, they’re probably having a ball — that is, playing with one. Which is fine with me, as long as they’re not playing ball in the house. But what is it about these toys that makes them such dependable crowd-pleases? And should my kids be practicing with flash cards rather than pursuing these simple diversions?
Don’t Knock Blocks
Blocks are the educational equivalent of a multivitamin. Children playing with blocks aren’t just honing their gross and fine motor skills, they’re learning everything from fundamental math concepts to problem solving. One study even showed that preschoolers who were adept at playing with blocks had higher math grades and test scores when they got to middle school than those who were not. As Sharon MacDonald, a trainer of early-childhood teachers and author of Block Play (Gryphon House), explains, “When your child works with blocks, he develops an understanding of fractions, shapes, and counting.” Of course, it’s not as if your 2-year-old is mastering halves and quarters. Math lessons unfold in different stages for different ages.
Having a Ball of a Time
Blocks aren’t the only powerhouse in the playroom. Even infants can follow a ball with their eyes as it rolls across the floor. In doing so, says Maureen Maiocco, early-childhood program director at SUNY Canton, in Canton, New York, they “must follow the direction and anticipate the location of the ball as it moves toward them.” This kind of visual tracking helps coordinate your baby’s eye movements with his body’s movements. Plus, predicting when the ball will reappear reinforces the idea that when something disappears from sight, it’s not necessarily gone for good.
When babies are older and can crawl after the ball, they are working on spatial awareness — How far away is that ball? Where is my body in relation to it? As toddlers become preschoolers, spatial awareness leads to logical thinking. Now that they’re getting the hang of throwing and catching, they have to start figuring out how hard to throw and in which direction. In other words, they have to estimate the parameters in which they can throw and catch.
Your preschooler is likely to take ball play deep into scientific exploration. When he sends a ball rolling down a slide, for example, he realizes that different-size balls roll down slides at different speeds. Emily Vosper, director of the Children’s Center at SUNY Ulster County Community College, in Stone Ridge, New York, describes the process as “higher-level thinking arising from basic tools.” Also known as physics for 4-year-olds.