Block play offers children so many great opportunities for holistic learning and creative play for children of all ages and it’s easier than you think to set up great block play at home!
With an inexpensive set of wooden blocks, and other toys and items you probably already have at home you can set up creative, open-ended play and learning opportunities that your kids will love.
In the many years I taught preschool, the block corner was always a popular place in my classroom. Block play offers so many great opportunities for play and skill development across all learning areas that it is a must have in all preschool classrooms, but you might feel like block play is too hard to do at home, it’s not!
You don’t need a large space for a dedicated block corner at home, nor do you need to buy a huge, expensive set of unit blocks, hollow blocks and all the fabulous accessories that go with them. With a basic set of wooden blocks, and a bit of creativity your kids can enjoy block play at home!
The Best Toys for Block Play at Home
There are lots of lovely commercially made blocks and construction toys that are perfect for block play, but there are also lots of ways to make your own blocks, and lots of ideas for ways to use recycled materials and other toys in block play. So you don’t need to spend lots of money to set up block play at home.
The first priority when selecting items for block play is that most of them should be open-ended – that means the items can be used in a variety of different ways. After that, you should choose items that are good value for money (or better yet, free) and that are easy to store.
All the items we use for block play at home fit these three ideals.
Homemade/Recycled items that we use for at home block play:
- Homemade Blocks from Scraps
You can easily make your own wooden blocks from scrap wood and basic woodworking tools. It’s often easy to find soft pine off cuts at many house building sites and all you need is a little sand paper to round the edges and they make perfect blocks. We made some simple castle blocks out of scraps of wood from a building site and over the years we have added more scrap wooden blocks, including some we made into chalk board blocks.
- Homemade Tree Blocks / Tree Cookies
If you are handy with a saw, then it is easy to make some homemade tree blocks. Just saw slices through branches and then sand smooth.
- Tree Slices and Slabs
You’ll need a bigger saw and some bigger pieces of wood to make these tree slices and slabs but if you know someone who has an open fire you could ask them to slice you up a log or two.
- Natural Materials
There are so many natural materials that you can collect to add to your block play – pine cones, stones, acorns, gum nuts, seed pods, sticks, and much more. Keep your eye out when you are out and about and start a collection of interesting natural materials.
This is the cheapest and easiest way to add all kinds of construction materials to your block play. There are so many recycled items that are fabulous for block play! Here’s some ideas – tin cans (make sure you use a tin opener that leaves a smooth safe edge on your cans), cardboard tubes, pieces of cardboard, small boxes, meat trays, plastic containers, old CDs.
- Loose Parts
Loose parts are any small items you can collect to you ins play, and you can add almost any loose parts to block play to make it really take off. All the little accessories and extras really spark a child’s imagination and often add extra opportunities for learning. Add whatever small items you have on hand – things such as glass gems, fabric scraps, plastic bottle caps, pom poms or even our free printable hexi cards. You’ll find even more ideas for loose parts and how to use them here.
Using free printables is a great way to extend block play without spending lots of money, and they don’t take up much space! This preschool block challenge free printable is a great way to get kids working on spatial awareness, or try adding one of our printable imaginative play mats.
Commercial blocks and toys we use for at home block play:
- Small Wooden Block Set
You may not have the space or the budget for a big set of unit blocks but many of the same mathematical concepts of size and shape, can be experienced with a small set of wooden blocks that don’t cost the earth. We asked family for this set of blocks for our twins’ first birthday ten years ago, and they are still loved many years later.
- Rainbow and Water Stackers
These small Grimm’s Rainbow and Water Stackers are a bit on the expensive side but they can be used in so many ways and spark so much imagination and creativity, they are well worth adding to your block play at home.
- Turned Wooden Blocks
We are very lucky to have a grandfather who makes these lovely turned wooden blocks for us. We also have lots of off-cuts and left overs from his wood turning that are fabulous to build with. If you know a wood turner or there is a local workshop near you, ask them if they can collect the scraps and mistakes for you, or you can buy a small set of interestingly shaped wooden blocks to add extra creativity.
- Animals, People, Cars and other Small Toys
Figurines and other small toys are a great addition to block play, sparking lots of imaginative play! Rotating in different small toys is a great way to follow your child’s interests and really get them engaging with block play. Try adding in people, animals, cars, fairies, road signs, or other small toys
Tips for Block Play At Home
To make block play at home fun and easy for both your kids and you, there are a few tips that will help you make it successful:
- Find some storage that the kids can easily access and easily pack away.
Packing away block play can become a bit of a battle if you are not careful, so to start with only get our a small amount of block play items and make sure it is as easy to pack away as possible. We use two Ikea Trofast units in our family room, and the kids can easily drag the tubs to where they want to play and it’s easy to just dump blocks back into tubs when they are done. It is also easy to change the contents of tubs, so when we are ready to have a break from block play we can pack the blocks into storage and add something new.
- You need a BIG space for block play.
Your kids will build for longer if they have space to build big! Our kids roll back the rug and build on our wood floors, or on our big dining room table. If you have carpet you might like to buy some big wooden boards for your kids to build on, or a train table also works well. If you have space to leave block constructions out for a few days then try it and see what happens – often kids will come back day after day to work on their constructions.
- Add some writing and drawing.
Adding some pencils or markers and paper opens up a whole world of literacy learning. Kids love to add signs for their block constructions, and even a child who is not writing yet can dictate a sign to you and see the power of words in action.
What Kids Learn from Block Play
Block play is lots of fun, but is it really so important? Is it worth going to such an effort to collect blocks and accessories and allow your house to be taken over by huge constructions???
I think it is and here are just some of the things kids learn when they play with blocks:
- Maths skills such as – number, shape, size, weight, volume, grouping, sorting, patterns, and measurements.
- Physical skills such as – eye-hand coordination, spatial awareness, large and small muscle movements, and visual perceptions.
- Science skills such as – experimentation, planning, cause and effect, balance, gravity, and symmetry.
- Literacy skills such as – expressive language, vocabulary, pre-writing skills, and seeing words in action.
- Creativity such as – representing ideas, using imagination, story telling, taking on roles.
- Social and emotional learning such as – problem solving, co-operating with others, negotiating, feeling successful, working through failure
And an added bonus – block play really encourages longer, more engaged, independent play. My almost four year old built blocks for more than an hour today. That was an hour that he didn’t ask what he could do, or for food, the only thing he needed from me was a few signs written up, so that was an hour I had pretty much to myself!
And don’t forget, block play is not only for toddlers and preschoolers – my school kids all still love creating elaborate block constructions and they are still learning and practicing all those skills listed above.
So after all that… have I convinced you that block play is not just for preschool? Have a go at some block play at your place and see where it takes you!