When I observe my toddler's block play I see lots of stacking and lining things up, I see the first signs of bridging and making enclosures. He builds ramps and roads. At home he has access to many accessories and he usually chooses cars, or dinosaurs and today I suggested some road signs. Most of all I see he is building towers, cities and often a loose community structure.
I love reading about block play and thinking of different ways to enhance the block play experience. I only recently discovered that there are different stages of block play based on the original observations by Harriet M. Johnson in The Art of Block Building (1933). By understanding which stage our child is at we can work to meet their developing needs. I feel like my toddler is across a few of the different stages but I definitely recognise many of these characteristics.
Stage One - Exploration (ages 1-3yrs)
The child is exploring the blocks with all of their senses. Children will feel the texture of the blocks, the smoothness, weight, size and the sound they make when they are dropped. The child loves to carry, move, dump, hold, pile, knock over, touch and pass the blocks. Children at this stage often love to transport blocks in wagons, in baskets, boxes, and bags.
Stage Two - Building Rows and Towers (ages 2-4yrs)
The child will line blocks up horizontally in a straight line or in curves along the floor, they will begin to stack blocks vertically. We see repetition and simple patterning. The building becomes representational. We may see a block used as a car or roads being formed.
Stage Three - Bridging (ages 3-4yrs)
Children begin to line up two vertical blocks with a space in between and add a third block across the top to from a bridge like structure. This stage requires a little more trial and error, experimentation, and coordination. The bridges become more complex and the child may create passageways. This can be a good stage to show the child images of real bridges, arches and architectural structures with columns. We can also add cloth (or play silks) to this play to signify water.
Stage Four - Building Enclosures (ages 4yrs)
Children begin to encircle and close up space between the blocks. We may see children plan ahead about how to close up a space and problem solve to create their desired structure. The child is building with a direct purpose and may start to add storylines, model animals, people and signs. In this stage the child continues with building bridges and passageways. The child understands the meaning of inside, outside, boundary, and perimeter. This is a great time to start providing model animals, people and vehicles. We begin to see some role play/pretend play and meaningful social sometimes internal dialogue.
Stage Five - Elaborate Structures (ages 4-5 yrs)
The child begins to build elaborate structures with efforts towards symmetry, patterning and sometimes decorative features. The child may classify their structures such as a shop, zoo or farm. This is a good stage to introduce images of international and well known buildings, houses, towers and other structures and paper for recording storytelling or for the child to record/document their buildings.
Stage Six - Planning and Building (5 yrs+)
Children may work individually or collaboratively to build elaborate structures making plans and decisions in advance. Structures become more complex and city like including multiple levels. Children make want to build and play with their structures over several days and may involve dramatic play. Children may like to include role play with dress ups. May include road and train networks.
The article Blocks, Blocks and more Blocks: Essential Materials for Play and Learning at Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research has some good visuals regarding these stages. My toddler Otto, as pictured in these above images is two years and 11 months old.
"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." - The Art of Block Building.