The simplest and oldest of toys can be massively helpful to children

Removing obstacles.
Removing obstacles.
Image: AP Photo / Charles Dharapak
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Many parents worry about how to help their children learn the skills they need to succeed in school. But a new study indicates that one of the oldest and simplest toys in the world—building blocks—could be doing just that.

The study, published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, was conducted by researchers at Purdue University. They found some indication that guided interventions with playing blocks helped improve children’s math skills and executive functioning. They also found that the intervention they designed around the playing blocks was more helpful—in terms of numeracy, cognitive flexibility, and global executive functioning—to the children of parents with low education levels.

Playing with blocks could improve children’s school readiness

Engaging with blocks helps children understand concepts of space and the physical properties of object. Because it is often a shared activity, it also gives kids a chance to practice complex language interactions and teamwork. Block play is especially beneficial to children in settings where an adult can help tie the blocks in a child’s brain to specific skills. That’s what’s called guided play.

In the Purdue study, the researchers designed an experiment with 59 children between the ages of three and six years old, from nine socioeconomically diverse preschools. The children were split into a control and an intervention group, and were assessed by trained research assistants on mathematics and executive functioning skills before and after the experiment.

Children assigned to the intervention group participated in 14 sessions of group block play over seven weeks. Each group contained no more than three children, and the groups stayed the same throughout the seven weeks, even as the prompts given to the kids by the supervising adults became more and more complex. The kids in the intervention group were then re-assessed for math and executive function skills using methods like the Sun/Moon task, a card sorting task, and the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders test, as well as the Preschool Early Numeracy Skills Screener, a shape recognition task, and a mathematical language task.

The researchers’ assessment of the impact of guided block play on kids’ math skills and executive function was not statistically significant, something that they attributed to the small sample size. But they were able to prove a relationship did exist, by focusing on the interpretation of effect sizes, following the recommendations of the American Statistical Association, which claim that an effect size of greater than .25 can be interpreted as a positive and substantive effect, even if the sample size and probability are not.

Sara Schmitt, the study’s lead author, says her team plans to try replicate these findings with a larger sample size next. They’re also going to test whether the intervention still has the same effect on kids when it is run by parents or teachers, instead of trained researchers. “When we’re thinking about scaling up interventions,” Schmitt told Quartz, “then we want to see if we can hand it over, and will the effects still be there in a more real-world setting.”

Playing with blocks doesn’t affect every child in the same way

The more statistically significant finding of the study was that the block play intervention most impacted the children of parents with low educational attainment. In fact, they conclusively showed that children whose parents’ education level was lower than “some college” benefited more from participating in the intervention in measurable ways, including with improved numeracy skills, cognitive flexibility, and global executive function than their peers.

This is important because parents’ level of education, especially for mothers, is more robustly predictive of children’s academic outcome and school readiness than income. And children whose parents have lower levels of education typically (pdf) start kindergarten with lower levels of school readiness than kids whose parents are highly educated. “What this means,” Schmitt explained, “is that this intervention could have an impact on closing school readiness gaps for kids who come from low economic status.”

This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.