Building Better Block Play Part 1

Below, we’ll take a look at the 7 stages of block play that Harriet Johnson outlined in her 1933 book, The Art Of Block Building.

Carrying & Exploring

In this stage, children are getting to know blocks. To do this they need to fiddle with them, move them about, and gain understanding of what they are and how the work. Support Carrying & Exploring by offering a variety of blocks to explore as well as plenty of boxes, bags, backpacks, and other containers for hauling them about. Create an environment where it is OK to tote blocks from place to place and dump them.

This stage is often the hardest for parents and caregivers to support, because children’s exploration often looks like misbehavior. Aside from hauling and dumping blocks, in this stage children will also mouth, toss, kick, walk upon, and drop blocks as part of their exploration. While it’s important to keep kids and equipment safe, it is also vital to understand that these activities are how young children explore and learn. Look for opportunities to support them while keeping everyone safe.

Forming Rows & Stacks

In this stage, children line blocks up horizontally and create vertical stacks of blocks. Support Forming Rows & Stacks by assuring young builders have plenty of time and space for building.

As they develop and then master these skills, the rows and stacks they create may become quite large. Is it currently OK in your setting for children to stack blocks as high as they can or line up rows that go beyond the confines of the Block Area? If not, you might want to consider ways to support the building of long rows and tall stacks.

Bridging Space

In this stage, builders start bridging space by spanning the space between two blocks with a third. The first two stages help kids develop skills needed for this stage. You can also support Bridging Space by assuring children have abundant opportunity to manipulate small bits and pieces. Such play hones their hand-eye coordination,  small muscle control, and spatial reasoning skills–all skills needed for creating these structures.

You can also assure there are plenty of long flat blocks available since they are popular for these types of structure. Such blocks are often lacking in block play areas because they take up a lot of space and are often used as swords and other weapons.

Creating Enclosures

In this stage, children use blocks to enclose spaces of all sized. From tiny to colossal, you can support Creating Enclosures by providing lots of blocks and space. Enclosures may or may not enclose things, but offering up objects to enclose is also helpful. In some early learning settings, non-block items are not allowed in the block area. This can hinder play as children move into the later stages of block play.

Balanced & Decorative Patterns

In this stage, structures become balanced and very symmetrical, exhibiting corresponding sizes, shapes, and relative positions of parts on opposite sides of a dividing line or median plane. Structures also become more ornate as children decorate them with available materials.

You can support builders in this stage by providing a variety of blocks and decorative loose parts. You can also look for informal opportunities to help children notice symmetry in their worlds as they look at faces, buildings, vehicles, and other objects.

Naming Structures

In this stage, children use skills they’ve learned in the previous stages as they begin naming structures during or after construction.

Support Naming Structures by providing writing materials in the block area so children can create signs for their named structures if they wish. From time to time, dramatic small world play is likely to break out around such structures in this stage. Children will probably need/want/require more time for play as well as more non-block materials (cars, dinosaurs, people, etc).

Building Representations

In this stage, the construction crews name their structures before building begins and then almost always use the structures as part of dramatic small world play.

Support Building Representations by continuing to offer plenty of time, space, and non-block materials as children’s structures and play grow more complex. Also, be aware that in this stage children may need more planning time before building begins.


Adult recognition and support of these 7 stages creates a block play environment that is much more child-friendly and learning-rich. In module 3, we’ll look at more ways to support block play.

Next, a few questions and then a look at block play rules and management.

Lesson tags: building better block play part 1
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