I have been observing young children playing with blocks for many years and have been fascinated to see the various ways they approach this modular, open-ended material. As an educator and designer of blocks and construction sets with a life-long  and passionate interest in design, art and architecture, I am constantly intrigued by the ever changing forms created by young children. One four-year old arranges the wood blocks into a carefully, constructed symmetrical design while another four year old takes the same blocks and begins to construct an elaborate story using the blocks as symbols for animals, castles and monsters. As I watch these contrasting approaches it is tempting to make a comparison with alternating movements in art history between abstraction and representation. 

When we designed our new web site, I wanted to show the “affordance” of blocks as a material to represent or symbolize different things from one moment to the next or to become parts of an abstract design. I needed to communicate this process in a clear and condensed form on our web site, so I asked one of our interns from Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont to make a series of stop-motion videos for each of our block sets. In the past, I have had some parents look at our “abstract” blocks and say…”they are beautiful but what do you do with them?’ (I have never had a child ask that question). To “see” the blocks in action- to watch them transform from a pyramid to a boat going under a bridge to a beautiful sculpture in twenty seconds is to witness the potential of blocks. They can act as symbols for narratives or become complex abstract structures and then, return to the visual silence of their original container to be ready again for another hand to pick them up and turn them into some wild creature or beautiful structure.

The importance of play for young children is appearing in the news more frequently. See this week’s New York Times article, “Efforts to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum”. (Click Here for Article)

It is encouraging to see more public interest in this topic.