Monday, April 11, 2011

Just Let Children Build

When people want to validate that just building is worthwhile for children, they mention that Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother gave him Froebel blocks to build with when he was a child. The geometric shapes he built with as a child influenced his architectural designs later.

It’s as if we need to justify children’s building because a famous architect also built with blocks as a child. When I see the concentration, problem solving, negotiation, measuring, estimating, designing, describing, conversation, and great excitement that children of all ages show as they build, I am perplexed as to why we are so reluctant to just let children build.

Building blocks and toys are valued loose parts children use to explore, shape, and vary their environments. In building, children investigate the nature of things, work with others and on their own, and explore their imaginations. Building encompasses a wide range of activities, materials, and scales. With large cardboard building blocks children construct dens and forts, while they use smaller unit blocks and Kapla blocks to create complex structures, intricate patterns, and tall towers. Extensive building systems such as LEGO and K’nex add specialized parts and themed sets for constructing elaborate models. Building materials can also be found at the beach, in the woods, or in the trash. Irregularly-shaped building materials like sticks, stones, branches, and cardboard packing boxes introduce variety and the opportunity to build virtually everywhere. This great wealth of building materials fosters open-ended exploration, embraces children’s questions, invites self-challenges, and releases delight in their accomplishments. 
Parents and children build with boxes

Everyone Gets into the Act with Building
The urge to build emerges early and persists. Watch a baby try to stack bits of food on her highchair tray or a toddler as he stacks plastic cups on top of each other on the floor. In preschool and kindergarten rooms across the country, the designated block corner signifies an understanding of the social, emotional, physical and cognitive value of block building. Though boys may engage more in constructing structures and systems and girls in creating places and patterns, both like to and do build. 

Everyone builds at the Minnesota State Fair
Long after children have left behind other forms of building and childish activities, many tweens and teens still build complex structures with kits and models. And, as some of my recent observations have indicated, adults more readily engage in building with children than in most other kinds of activities besides the café and grocery store exhibits. Whether building towers and forts revives their own childhood memories or the urge to build never completely disappears, adults are valued partners in extending children’s play and exploration.

Nanne, 4 years old, arranges blocks in patterns

STEM, STEAM and Literacy Too
Experiences with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) begin early with a toddler’s stacking and dropping. The tremendous capacity for repetition for which this age group is so well-known is especially beneficial for exploring cause-and-effect. Watching and listening to the sound of crashing, tumbling, skittering blocks provides first-hand information about the force of gravity that, by third grade, children may only be reading about in books. The value of building is not limited to science centers and children's museums; it has a role in art and history museums as well. As children build, they work with STEM concepts, incorporate the arts to produce STEAM, and practice 21st century skills. All is richly layered with the “talk and play” foundation for literacy as children:
Let's build.
•    grasp, lift, and carry blocks;
•    connect, stack, order, and balance blocks;
•    count, divide, and compare blocks among co-builders;
•    arrange and fit blocks together using their length, width, or height dimensions;
•    create symmetrical and radiating patterns and designs;
•    measure structures using standard and non-standard units of measurement;
•    build from memory, imagination, or views;
•    describe their structures and create stories about inhabitants and the worlds they have created.
How tall should we make our tower?

The Glorious Informality of Building
Building is a source of rich content. But it does not necessarily benefit from being interpreted or taught directly. Actually, I find the informality of children just building to be building’s great strength. When children direct their own building, they follow their interests, work at their level and stay ahead of where instruction would likely peg them. Building engages them in an easy balance of process and product. So, rather than incorporating more explicit subject-matter content into building with structured activities or text, a few adjustments are more likely to extend and enrich children’s building.

A Building Place: Building can proceed at a furious or leisurely pace in an area that is out of the way and protected from traffic. A smooth and stable building surface reduces the frustration of unsteady blocks toppling too soon. A slightly raised platform protects impressive, but fragile, structures from moving feet. It can also can be a place to crouch or perch. Multiple platforms ad the possibility of multiple building projects.

Can we make this tower as tall as he is?
Abundance: A wealth of blocks, boxes, bricks, or sticks encourages building, building, and more building. There is no sharing to slow down enthusiastic builders; they need only add extensions, build higher, create more intricate structures, and perhaps discover a new city. To inspire building, I would choose sets, and sets, and more sets of blocks over architectural models or inspiring photos of architectural landmarks.

Open Views and New Perspectives: Introduce views and perspectives from which children can draw their own ideas and inspiration. Locate building areas near windows that bring the outside in and frame building shapes and proportions that are part of the everyday world. Especially when windows aren’t an option, place mirrors to provide new views of the most fascinating building activity of all. Wall-mounted mirrors can show different views of a structure. Mirrors can also be placed in less likely positions: down low or overhead to capture the evolving construction from different and interesting views.

If we pull up a stool, we can add a few more inches?
Comfort: If adults are to be engaged as observers, supporters or co-builders, their comfort must be considered as well. A platform of 12” - 18” is great for both building on and perching on.

For the record: When a few materials for documenting what they have built are present, children can make their thinking visible, express their joy, and share the experience with others. Small pieces of paper or sticky notes, pencils, a place for display, and a way to post them are often just enough to capture what is important to a child about what she has built. These traces are also small gifts to museum staff on how to build on the strengths children have brought to their constructions. 

Why Not Just Plain More Building for Children?
Now, the big push. Let's see how it falls.
Even if building didn’t offer children a splendid array of physical, social, cognitive, and emotional benefits, museums might want to offer more building anyway. Building helps them negotiate around practical constraints. Building areas with abundant materials bring high play and learning value at a relatively low cost for many visitors at small museums, new museums, museums with tight budgets, and museums needing to fill the schedule between traveling exhibits. Few museums, if any, that I know of don’t need to plan around one at least of those considerations.  

So, let's get building.

Great building opportunities and materials are everywhere.


  1. Brilliant! Building with various objects is still my most favorite activity with the children at DayCare. And invariably, once one person starts (not only me) everyone comes to join in the work.

  2. The brilliance is in the building. As these photos show, the variety of building is tremendous. Materials themselves suggest shapes,relationships and possibilities; imaginations, conversations, and stories do the rest. I love hearing a child who is building say, "I know what this could be..."

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