The Stages of Block Play
Blocks are one of my all-time fave open ended play resources and once you know the ages and stages of block play, your mind is blown by children's play. They are something that you can buy for a very young child that will see them through their entire childhood AND can be used by the entire family. There are not many educational resources that can make that claim.
In fact, growing up we were gifted a large set of wooden kindergarten unit blocks in a large wooden box on wheels. Sure we did ride around in the box sitting on top of the wheels and pulled each other along with the rope, but that was just an added bonus. Then when we outgrew the set, it was paid forward to another family.
There are some stages that children will progress through when playing with blocks.
Some of these ages and stages of block play will be transient, and they should be viewed as part of a child’s learning and development and other stages will be combined or moved in and out of. Also, part of learning and development. Children learn through play, and they learn through repetition and experimentation. Children won’t need us to show them the stages, you just sit back and observe.
As children move through the stages of block building they are learning skills and laying the foundation for the next stage. Offering children a solid resource like wooden unit blocks will support them in their holistic learning and development. This is something we covered in depth in our Ultimate Block Building Guide. I did touch on the stages of block building in the guide, but I felt that the Stages of Block Play needed its own article, especially when I want to share it on the socials when I notice people puzzling over why their child is at a certain stage in their block play.
I have noticed in some Facebook groups where educators and parents alike are questioning their provisioning of blocks because all their child does is knock them over or scatter them around the play space.
Did you know that the way to learn to build something is to dismantle it or transport it? So for the toddlers in your life, build that tower, count the blocks as you stack them one on top of the other and then when the toddler in your life can’t contain themselves any longer, let them knock it down! Make a game of it. This my friends is part of the learning journey or the stages of block play.
Learning to stack blocks is hard. It requires your hands and your eyes working together. It requires some complex fine hand movements of grasping, positioning, holding steady and then letting go gently so as to not knock the block below over. It’s hard! Until a child is ready, knocking things down or collecting them in baskets and transporting them is the way to go. Nurture it. Encourage it. Provide baskets and buckets and containers.
The 7 and Stages of Block Play
The stages of block play were first discussed by Harriet M. Johnson in her book The Art of Block Building in 1933! That’s 90 years ago. And what I love most of all, is that it was a book written by a woman in a corner that is often dominated by boys in a field that is often dominated by men. This of course led me on a little side project looking up Harriet M. Johnson and wasn't surprised to find she's a leader in education and has a history with Banks Street College of Education. The college was founded on the humanist theories of John Dewey and other humanists. Again, this is another blog in the works!
"We have not realized sufficiently the richness of this kind of play material on the one hand, nor the richness of children's imaginative resources on the other. No adult could have planned a didactic method which could have stimulated children to this sort of activity, but also no such building is found unless favourable conditions are made for it."
- Harriet M. Johnson in The Art of Block Building.
Block play is a critical space in the early childhood classroom or playroom at home. It provides an open-ended resource that allows children creative and imaginative freedom. It supports their problem-solving and mathematical learning. As an open-ended resource it can become so many different things all in the creative minds of children. Observing children’s block play tells us so much about what is going on inside their developing brains. In this article, we’re going to explore the 7 ages and stages of block play.
While we have included ages alongside each stage, each child is unique and will progress through the stages at different times. Children who have not been exposed to block play, will still move through the different stages at different rates. The first stage of block play is most likely to be relevant only for babies and toddlers, but might be applicable to a neurodiverse child of an older age.
The Developmental Stages of Block Play
Stage 1 of Block Play: Discovery, Exploring also known as Carrying
0-3 Year Olds
This stage of block play is typical of children aged under one years old through to the age of three. As the first stage of block play, this is one we see commonly in babies and toddlers. This is why having some simple block sets in baskets or small wheeled trolleys are quite common in the play space.
Young children of this age are more likely to carry and collect the blocks and transport them from one place to another. I often see commentary about children dumping toys out and then moving along. This is all developmentally appropriate for children of this age and stage of learning. Children use blocks as they develop their sensorimotor skills. Children at this age want to touch, taste, carry, move, throw, knockdown or make collections of items, in this case blocks. They may also experiment with banging blocks together and learning about the different sounds they make when knocked together, or when they come crashing down.
Children will pack the blocks into a basket or bucket and then tote them around a space.
While it may seem to the naked eye that they are just “making a mess” they are in fact learning all about the properties of the blocks! They are learning how they feel in their hands. How much they weigh. Whether they are smooth or rough to the touch. They are learning how many they can fit in their hand, bag, basket or bucket. While they aren’t learning the actual numbers of how many will fit, they are learning the rough quantity through trial and error.
Children of this age love, and I mean LOVE knocking down buildings.
This is where things can get a bit tricky with older children playing with younger. So if you have a preschool aged child who has built themselves an impressively complex tower using loose parts and a toddler comes along and knocks it over, it can be devastating for the older child. For the younger one, it’s pure delight. This is where you can support the younger separately by building towers for and with them to knock down over and over again.
Children at this are are all about sensory play.
Sensory play is often marketed as messy play using sand or playdough or rainbow rice. But it is all sensory play at this stage of children’s learning and development. Babies learn through their touch, taste, sound, sight. When they pick up a block and put it in their mouth, they’re learning about the texture, the weight, and the size of the block.
When they knock two blocks together or against another surface they’re learning about the density and sound of the blocks. Children of this age really love tossing blocks and while it is often seen as destructive they’re actually learning about the length of time it takes for blocks to travel and land as well as the force end exertion they need to use to make that block go far! It’s all learning, never ‘naughtiness’. Children are learning about blocks and what they can do.
How to Support + Enrich Children’s Learning in Stage 1 of Block Play
To support children in this stage of block play, simple block sets are best. Offer children a collection of different containers in which to gather their blocks and carry them around. As I mentioned previously there are trays on wheels with handles, soft fabric baskets, woven baskets with handles, even cardboard boxes would be a great addition to this space.
In regards to teaching strategies, build some towers! If you’d like to set up a play provocation for your children or students, you can build some different towers on the top of a table in block area. Or build some towers or small constructions on a mat in block corner. This will draw the children’s eye to the space and inspire them to knock things over! Remember this is a stage of learning and the precursor to building independently.
Stage 2 of Block Play: Stacking, Rows, Towers
2-3 Year Olds
Now that the child has progressed through the first stage of block building, they enter into the second stage where building begins. During this stage, children start stacking blocks, forming rows and making towers. It’s a very linear stage. Whether the child is stacking towers, or stacking rows they’re connecting blocks together into a shape. During this stage children are very big on repetition, which is why this stage is also known as a repetition stage. Children are repeating patterns of building and again, this is all about learning.
This stage is a very basic one, but critical none the less. Children will most likely experiment with both vertical and horizontal constructions. Children may start with two blocks, then move onto three and so on. You’ll notice that the horizontal constructions are larger than the vertical. Sometimes during this stage children will use the blocks as play props and pretend that they are cars or trains and move them around spaces.
When my preschoolers start in the classroom, many of them have no experience in an early childhood setting, and no experience with blocks that don’t connect. So they go through the stages of block play pretty quickly. For the most part, the blocks are used to create long roads, possibly with some curves.
I’ve noticed that the students usually build independently or parallel to another builder - but not yet collaboratively (these are social stages of play and this will have to be another article!). These block roads, are then used with cars that are often lined up along the road or zoom along in the case of a favourite and much cherished matchbox car. It’s not until terms 2 and 3 that the children really start demonstrating some creativity in their block play because that’s when they’re ready to progress from the second stage into the third and fourth.
How to Support + Enrich Children’s Learning in Stage 2 of Block Play
At this stage I would make sure children have space in which to build and knock over. Children will need a firm surface upon which to build. If you’re ok with the crashing of blocks onto a tile or wooden floor, then don’t have a rug in the space. If you do need a rug, then something with a very low and tight pile will do the job. Or perhaps a low table like a coffee table. I found a gorgeous wooden table on the side of the road but I see them at opportunity shops or marketplace all the time for anywhere from $10 to $50. This could be pushed against a wall, or placed in the centre of a space.
You want to make sure that the children have enough blocks for them to build up and out, but you also don’t want to have a set of 100 blocks that are simply going to be dumped and left, or a chore to tidy up. Start with say 20 blocks and play it by ear. Even ask children if you see them building with the all the blocks you’ve placed in the area: Do you need more blocks to keep building?
You can also add in vehicles at this stage. As mentioned previously children will build long rows of blocks, and they often become roads so adding in a few cars gives children the opportunity to use their construction and engage their play a bit longer than if they were just building.
Stage 3 of Block Play: Bridges, Balancing and Passageways
3-4 Year Olds
This stage is also referred to as Balancing. It is during this stage that children start to experiment more with their construction. They may start by placing two blocks slightly apart with a third block over the top creating a bridge, aka bridging. Over time, children end up building rows and towers and stacks of blocks adding in bridges and forming tunnels or passageways. Through trial and error children are learning how to balance blocks on top of one another
It is during this stage that children are really learning and developing their skills. This style of building supports children’s hand-eye coordination as well as their fine motor skills - it takes a steady hand to balance blocks!
Experimentation is really the foundation of children’s block building and learning during this stage. Children will learn what sized blocks can balance on top of others etc. Children will start to use their imagination more during this stage and they’ll create roads or cities buildings including castles and towers and houses.
How to Support + Enrich Children’s Learning in Stage 3 of Block Play
It is during this stage that I suggest offering children some more loose parts to enrich their play. While they may not initially be drawn to the open-ended play materials, they may just inspire some creativity when the child is ready. I like to have tree branch blocks for a challenge, animal and people figurines, large smooth river stones, felt pebbles and stacking stones, scraps of fabric and play silks.
Stage 4 of Block Play: Enclosures
4 Year Olds
Around 4 years of age children are block building veterans having progressed through the first three stages. They move from sensorimotor play to stacking to building bridges to creating enclosures. Now the enclosure stage might not seem that impressive but it actually is when you think about it. It shows that the child is able to use their hand-eye coordination to connect blocks into an enclosed space. It could be even be a rectangle and what a feat that is!
When creating enclosures, children are developing their understanding of inside and out. While they may not be able to articulate in or out, they’re demonstrating they understand the concept and are using the language of blocks to communicate this! Enclosures are all about inside, outside, boundaries, and perimeter.
When children combine all the skills they have learned through the stages of block play: stacking, rows, bridging and enclosures - these constructions become little landscapes for imaginative play. Building with enclosures and bridging are technical skills that require a lot of hand-eye coordination and hand dexterity. It can be tricky balancing blocks on top of other blocks.
When children begin to build enclosures they associate them with familiar things or themes of interest such as car garages, barn on a farm, a Jurassic inspired theme park with dinosaurs. This is where pretend play using blocks really kicks off.
How to Support + Enrich Children’s Learning in Stage 4 of Block Play
As in the previous stage, baskets of loose parts, play silkies, fabric pieces and repurposed scarves, animals, people figurines and natural elements are the perfect props for enriching children’s play at this stage of block play.
Stage 5: Symmetry and Patterns
4-5 Year Olds
At this stage of block play things start to get fancy. This stage of block play is also known for representational building. Symmetry and patterning start showing up in children’s block play. Children start sorting and matching loose parts and creating visual balance as they build increasingly complex constructions. Children like lining blocks up and learning about patterns.
As children’s block play becomes more complex, they become more imaginative. While we have seen some creativity demonstrated in previous stages, this stage is where things really takes off. Children are developing mathematical and scientific skills. These skills support children in creating their intricate designs showcasing balance and symmetry.
Imaginative play continues to be an important part of children’s block play at this stage, and the addition of characters and props
How to Support + Enrich Children’s Learning in Stage 5 of Block Play
Again, baskets of props and loose parts support children’s creative, creative and exploration of patterns, symmetry, balance and design when they create their building.
The addition of loose parts really supports children as they explore their creativity and symmetry. Acrylic mirrors, wood and acrylic blocks, coloured plastic shot glasses and glass gems would also be a wonderful addition to children’s block play.
Another great offering to support children’s creativity during this stage is offering them images of real life buildings. In my preschool classroom we went on good old Google and we searched for bridges, towers, historical and culturally significant buildings from around the world.
From the Egyptian pyramids to the Golden Gate Bridge to the iconic Sydney Opera House and the broody Mont Saint Michel abbey in France. There are so many amazing options and if you research them together with the children - it becomes a collaborative project. The images can be on a display board, or turned into an inspiration book. Or even have them as cards in a basket in block area.
You can also add in paper, pencils and pens with clipboards. This will support children in recording or documenting their buildings.
Stage 6 of Block Play: Early Representational – Symbolic Play, Functional and the Naming of Structures
5+ Years Olds
The 6th stage is also referred to as Planning and Building. It’s at this known as the early representational, functional where children begin naming their structures. Children’s buildings becomes far more detailed and intentional and this level of complexity requires forethought and planning.
In previous stages, children may have named their structures, but pretend play and the use of props and resources becomes an essential component of the block building. Children use dramatic play to help them understand the way the world works.
Preschoolers are usually in this stage, and you may find they only progress to the next stage when they are a bit older. Children’s construction skills at this stage is more detailed and the are more intentional with their buildings. As children’s social skills develop you’ll find that they are more likely to work collaborating on their buildings.
How to Support + Enrich Children’s Learning in Stage 6 of Block Play
To support children’s block play at this stage, offering them a larger variety of blocks along side the afore mentioned ideas will support the complexity of their building. Consider tree blocks, hollow wooden blocks, acrylic blocks, gem blocks, arches, and planks.
Stage 7 of Block Play: Later Representational, Complex and Symbolic or Advanced Representational
AGES 5+ School Age Years
At this stage of Block Play things start to really get fancy and intricate. At this stage of construction, children’s buildings start to include curves, multiple levels, multiple buildings and towers attached by bridging. They may start to include other toys or even furniture in their construction. Adding in roads or train tracks can turn a building into a community or an entire city.
I can remember watching a child using blocks to raise a train set track and the level of complexity in the construction was amazing to observe. In fact I sat there for quite a while neglecting my administrative duties as a director just so I could see this child’s work evolve.
At this stage, children will really start planning their buildings, articulating their intent and then replicating buildings or structures they’ve seen or have experience of. It could be a school, a bridge, garage, home. Building with blocks really supports children’s imaginative play and at this stage children’s pretend play elevates their constructions.
Cooperative play is still developing in children of this age, but children will certainly work together as they build. You’ll notice that some children take on more of a creative leadership role, where the other children may follow that lead. Children will negotiate ideas, roles, what they might build and how they plan to do it.
At around 6 and 7 years old children often grow out of their interest in block play. Or their interest may become quite thematic or specific - such as Lego. Some children continue to love block play, but may explore other materials such as magnetic tiles. Or perhaps they’d like to combine them all together!?
And there my friends, we have the 7 ages and Stages of Block Play. Once children have mastered a stage and moved on to the next, you’ll note that they jump back and forth between them. This is where children combine all their knowledge and start experimenting. You may also notice when a younger or older child such as a sibling enters the play, their play stage may adapt to include them. Children are great scaffolders both physically and theoretically.
Block play is an opportunity for children to be creative and expressive and develop so many life skills.
How to Support + Enrich Children’s Learning in Stage 7 of Block Play
As previously suggested - continue to provide children with the resources they need to building meaningfully as they progress through the ages and stages of block play. I would add in some technology at this stage and encourage children to use devices to document and enrich their play.
You can offer children tablets, phones, tripods or stands and they can film their building work. They can experiment with time-lapse, make movies, photograph and document their own constructions, ideas and buildings.
Children can draw plans of their buildings and pair them with the images that inspired their constructions.
They could write film or movie scripts for their characters or act out familiar stories of interest. Then film them!
Check out this fabulous PDF by the Iowa Regent's Centre for Early Development Education at the University of Northern Iowa. Why re-invent the wheel? Click below and it will take you to their document.
References + Further Reading on the ages and stages of block play:
Want to read some other blog articles on block play? While the stages remain the same, how each author has expressed their experiences or shared images from their own experiences are different. Here are a few I have found for you along my travels on the interwebs:
- The Stages of Block Play - What am I Observing? by How we Montessori
- The Stages of Block Play by My Teaching Cupboard
- The Developmental Stages of Block Play by Fairy Dust Teaching
- The 7 Stages of Block Play in Early Childhood by Empowered Parents
- 10 Things that Children Learn from Block Play by NAEYC
- Using Blocks to Develop 21st Century Skills by NAEYC
- 7 Stages of Block Play: Building and early learning by SCLD
- What Research Tells Us About Block Play and STEM Learning by NAEYC
- Rocking and Rolling Building New Skills: Block Construction in Toddler Settings
- Developmental Stages of Block Play by Iowa Regent's Centre for Early Developmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa.