see what your students can learn

When you watch children play with Imagination Playground blocks, your first question may be: what is my child doing? But the better question may be: what is my child learning? 

Here you’ll learn how to spot examples of productive play and see what students of different ages can learn while playing with Imagination Playground Blocks

The more you understand what you see, the more you’ll realize that it’s so much more than play.

The information in here is adapted from the publication Imagination Playground’s Guidance to Play by George E. Forman, PhD, Emeritus Professor, University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and President of Videatives, Inc. Click here to download a PDF of the full booklet.

arches, lintels, and windows

Left: Children see an arch as an invitation to walk through the vacant space.

Right: Making a doorway using a lintel (the top block that lies across the two vertical blocks) requires some thought about spacing and support. As you see here, arches contain enough complexity to elicit cooperative play. 

This arch was created in the unusual manner of leaning two curved blocks together. This method will work only if the blocks do not slip outward from the pressure of leaning together. This arch requires some understanding of two counteracting pressures.

 

 

 

 


It is no small problem to figure out how to make an enclosed vacant space in a vertical structure. The window, door, or arch is bounded on all sides yet remains vacant in the middle. It is much easier to make a stack or a solid wall. These openings can become a focus of play, such as the port hole on a ship or a space were the inside person can talk to the outside person without letting the outside person in (remember the Emerald City gate keeper in The Wizard of Oz?). Starting from something as simple as the arch, the children might create extensions of the arch or think that the play space also needs an escape archway in the back. Doorways provide children with an implicit instruction on how to navigate and use space.

2-4 Year Olds

Very young children may find crevices and spaces to enter but will not make a well-formed arch or window on their own. Nevertheless, body-sized empty spaces to a young child have the same appeal as a slightly opened cabinet to a cat. They will want to know, “what is in there, can I go through, does entering the space make my parents smile or call my name?” They explore what can be navigated in both expected and unexpected paths.

4-7 Year Olds

The older children will become interested in the engineering of these enclosed yet vacant spaces. They will go through trial and error to get a hole where they want it. Here you will see the advantage of the foam blocks that can be toppled without consequence when children want to destroy and try again.

7-10 Year Olds

Still older children will move from the sheer engineering of these spaces to decisions about how many spaces, where, and for what purpose. A castle wall may have both a window and turrets (gaps with no lintels as in the second graphic above) and these architectural differences will have to be negotiated and explained in terms of their purpose.

enclosures, boundaries, and barriers

Left: The blocks can define the social use of space, such as inside for club members, outside for non-members. More open enclosures could mean more open membership.

Right: Tall enclosures give children the opportunity to get away from the noise or to deliberately hide and pop out as a game with their peers.

With so many blocks the children can make boundaries for really large areas. While this may be a type of territorial behavior to claim the most space, it could also be part of a game that requires the children to mark the out- of-bounds areas.

 



 

 


Children naturally create more intimate spaces within large open spaces to find privacy, or make bounded spaces that define “being in the play” or not. Without the ability to expand or contract these spaces with moveable parts the children would constantly have to accommodate to the size of a jungle gym or the existing sand box. But the moveable parts afford the children an opportunity to negotiate with each other about enlarging the boundaries if the group gets larger or dividing the space if the group gets too mixed, e.g. younger children here, older children there. These boundaries serve as a “memory” for the rules the children create and parts of the laid out spaces give status, such as the cockpit for the pilot versus the spaces behind for the passenger.

2-4 Year Olds

For small children, the whole block defines a space, such as something to stand on or lift. This object can afford social relations with another child as one child invites the other to “do as I do.” The use of the space is defined by the shape and weight of the block.

4-7 Year Olds

Slightly older children will be intrigued with spaces that have a definite inside and outside, or even a my-side and your-side. Even a low wall affords a game of detour and going around the wall. Children understand how their layouts affect the traffic patterns of other children and will make decisions that create structures more and more complex as they play with these blocks.

7-10 Year Olds

As children become more group-oriented their layouts will support social dynamics, such as membership or status. This can be done with full enclosures or even “secret” entry ways that require passwords. While this might seem exclusionary to other children, it could present an opportunity for children to deal with issues of fairness, or at least reasonableness.

gear to gear play


Children interlock a set of gears and place them on top of a structure as an ornamental top. The gears do not rotate but they do represent the way blocks can grip each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left: With some adjustments, water poured down the chute might turn this gear, giving children experience with how a liquid current can transfer motion to the solid gear.

Right: These children understand that one gear can turn another if the two gears are positioned correctly and the axles are strongly fixed in place. This is not an easy structure to figure out.

The two types of gears in the Imagination Playground Classic Block set afford rather different problems to solve. The Plus Gear and Clover Gear interlock and entice the children to make a giant jigsaw puzzle or tight- fitting wall as you see in the top photo. However, these two gears are not well matched for one turning the other on adjacent axles. If children were to make a row of gears, they might be intrigued by the way the first, third and fifth gear in the row turn in the same direction while turning in a direction opposite to the second and fourth. When children use the gear as a water wheel, they read the gear as “water catcher” instead of a “gear turner.”

2-4 Year Olds

At two or three years, children will be more attracted to the hole in the gears. They will put it on their hand, augmenting their own body, like a huge bracelet. Once they have explored the hole they may try to roll the gear on the ground.

4-7 Year Olds

Eventually the children will read the gear as something designed to be turned on an axle by an outside force, such as one’s hand, the wind, or the water. Then comes the idea of relating gears to each other. The first form of gear-to-gear play could be to make stationary walls or puzzles, but this requires mixing two different gear types, and children might prefer to play with just one type at a time.

7-10 Year Olds

Finally, the children will discover how one gear can move the other. As mentioned, the gear-turning structure has complicated construction requirements for making the gears both interface and turn.

bringing fabric into play

Left: Children drape a light fabric over some stacked blocks creating a cozy little club house. Once the roof is in place they furnish the house with things to sit on and rest on.

Right: The teachers make decorative netting material available in a box. Several girls thread the center hole of the gear part with the fabric to give their tower a decorative top that picks up the flow of the wind.

These three girls are pretending to be doctor, nurse, and patient. The blocks are the bed and the red fabric serves as the bed sheet. The fabric allows them to role play themes that involve covering, such as being so sick you have to remain under the covers.



 

 

 

 A sheet is a large flexible plane. It can cover large irregular openings like the top of a fort with turrets. Sheets also billow and flutter with the wind causing thoughts about sailing by making the wind visible. Fabric strips can decorate, but can also be used to tie two blocks together or make a long chain of these blocks so those blocks can be “owned” by one person. Fabric adds motion to a structure, adds different colors to a pattern, and masks components of a structure that the children want to hide. Once, a large group of children re-enacted the unveiling of a public monument by draping a sheet over a block tower then pulling it off with fanfare. These potentials make fabric the perfect complement to the rigid blocks.

2-4 Year Olds

Children of two or three years will prefer smaller swatches of fabric to use, such as the right amount to wrap a baby doll in a pretend baby blanket (see also: cylinders), or to hide under for peek-a-boo play with a parent. The blanket already has a function and it is harder for younger children to invent new uses of fabric not usually assigned to it.

4-7 Year Olds

Older children might pretend play with fabric. A hanging sheet is a pretend wall to breach. A narrow ribbon of fabric will be used to wrap a giant size present and swatches of colored fabric could be stepping stones to a block structure.

7-10 Year Olds

The still older children may show less interest in the fabric, unless its surface area is very large. These children will realize how fabric can easily cover even irregular structures. The fabric actually lets them create a roof without having to figure out the architectural design that would be required to hold up a roof made of blocks.

parts as furniture


Left: A girl makes a lounge chair using two Arch Chutes and some Primary Blocks. The foam is actually quite comfortable and the scale is perfect for her height. She added parts until it felt just right when she lay back.

Right: These three-year-old girls use the cylinders as a sort of lap rail, similar to the bar in a car seat or amusement ride, as if the foam makes them feel secure and nestled in together. 


Using some mats, Primary Blocks for pillows, and noodles anchored in the Little Cheeses, two girls have a “sleep over” in a life-size double bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The large scale of the Imagination Playground parts affords an entirely new category of play—building body-sized furniture and equipment. The cushion of the foam often suggests objects for rest (beds, chairs, lounges). The fun comes when you try the structure on for size. The children work to adjust the proportions of their structures to fit the proportions of their body. This work increases the body awareness that is important in many activities. And while building the structures may not require measurement, it certainly involves judgments of equivalence, e.g. is the bed long enough for my height, does the curve of the lounge hit the curve of my bottom, if my arms hang uncomfortably I should I add arm rests.

2-4 Year Olds

Two and three-year-old children love the large scale of these parts. The Imagination Playground Blocks are light, firm, yet cushioned. Younger children learn to sit, lay, and drape their body on them. They may not make a composite structure using several parts, but nonetheless will treat the blocks as something to hold, cradle, or support the body.

4-7 Year Olds

The older children begin with simple structures, like two blocks at right angles to make a chair. But once they actually rest on the structure they discover how it could be improved. The backrest needs more support; the table needs to sit six; the seesaw needs handles. These accessories come both from a pretend theme and from physical events, such as the back rest falling or the seesaw feeling scary.

7-10 Year Olds

Older children may compare their structures, almost competing for which structure is the best. They will carefully consider what makes a structure better, such as the furniture is more comfortable, holds more people, or is more recognizable as a chair versus a sofa versus a bed.

parts as a path or course

Left: The long curving blocks make interesting paths for a ball. The children can alternate the curves to see how the overall path changes when that rule is applied, or when variations of that rule are applied and result in a closed loop.

Right: With these large blocks children can design challenging structures that allow multiple players to follow the leader. 

Since the parts are moveable, children will naturally create all sorts of boundaries, paths, and obstacle courses. It is interesting to watch how the children will deliberately make an activity more challenging by expanding the distance between “stepping stones” or raising the bar on a hurdle. These games create opportunities for the children to negotiate rules among themselves—what constitutes a successful finish or a winning run. Some of the paths will just be paths and the intrigue comes from not knowing in advance exactly where you will end up, like weaving through the empty spaces of an accidental maze.

2-4 Year Olds

Younger children will no doubt want to walk on the block path as do the older children. Try to judge if they have sufficient body awareness to know what they can do. Also, note that they may be just as content remaining in some of the vacant spaces because these spaces are cozy.

4-7 Year Olds

As the children get older the rules become more complicated. They learn the difference between a rule and a strategy. A strategy is something you might do, such as, “start on your right foot,” but sometimes children confuse a strategy with a rule and say, “you have to start on your right foot.” In the same vein, having an objective is not the same as using a rule.

7-10 Year Olds

The older children will probably bring up the issue of different rules for different ability levels, such as, “Let the little guy go around the hard part.” Think about the complexity of the path and how well the children anticipate which way to go. Does it bother them if they come out some place they did not expect? Treat that awareness as a mark of their intelligence.

parts that move

Left: Young girl discovers that an Arch Chute upside down makes a great rocking horse. To sustain her interest she will probably pretend to be riding a horse or a rocking boat.

Right: Using the Little Cheese and Plug parts, this boy made a car. The wheels turn as he pushes the car forward with his feet. This car is an advanced use of moving parts since the structure more than looks like a car; it works like one as well.

All of the parts can be moved, but some parts can rock or roll or pivot in predictable ways. These movements add function to the form. A gear on a cylinder becomes more than a look-alike flower. It can rotate and become a grinder. When children add function to form they begin to see the form in increasingly creative ways. Consider a hinged block that moves in a wall as a door. Compared to an open hole in the wall, the open door means, “I am open now but I could close at any time.” An open door is a special opportunity to enter, more so than an open hole that is always open. Since the closed door looks like a solid wall, the child can pretend it is a secret passage. The potential movement of parts adds interest and story to the child’s play.

2-4 Year Olds

At the youngest ages, children will be more alert about how single objects move, the rolling wheel and plugs, the rocking chute, and making the noodles bend back and forth.

4-7 Year Olds

The next stage could be simple joints that create new composite forms but are not played with or talked about as a moving joint, such as putting plugs in holes to make arms for a robot or two hinges joined to make an adjustable A-frame peak. The part movements are used more for quick changes in the structure’s shape rather than to do work.

7-10 Year Olds

As children get older and work more with the blocks, they will invent simple machines or animals with moving parts, such as a neck that moves for a grazing giraffe or wheels that roll across the ground. The movements have a function, a purpose (pretend or real) beyond simply providing a convenient way to change the shape of the structure.

parts to wear or wield in pretend play

Left: Boy puts Little Cheeses on his forearms and announces, “I am Hammer Hands.” The boy is proud of his invention and walks around announcing his identity.

Right: Boy holds noodle and wields it like a sword, using a Clover Gear as a shield to his hand. Often five or six boys will create these swords using noodles or cylinders to have mock fencing matches.

 Boy made a barbell with two Little Cheeses and a noodle. He likes the way the noodle bends when he lifts the barbell, as if it shows the heaviness of his pretend weights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children are creative and go beyond treating the blocks as physical elements for building and climbing. They also treat the blocks as props with symbolic status. They may place a gear on top of their head as if it were a crown or bend a noodle into a loop to wear like a huge belt with the Little Cheese as the buckle. Once a prop is endowed with a role in pretend play, the prop gives continuity to the play by bridging segments of the action. If the magic belt makes its wearer invisible, it helps others know who is invisible now. The prop provides some limits on what the pretend actions mean and thereby structures the script.

2-4 Year Olds

Consider the difference between a prop you wear or hoist versus an object you carry. A young child may carry a Plug around because it satisfies a sense of “having” the object, but she may not relate the object to their body in any special way. Even so, this desire to “have” a particular object is the first step toward pretend play as the children make up action routines with that object.

4-7 Year Olds

Older children will make simple props with defining details (magic wand with handle).

7-10 Year Olds

Still older children more complicated props (barbell with bench and rack). The physical complexity of the prop parallels the creation of more complex themes, such as scripts with action segments that use multiple props and players.

parts used to accent or decorate

Left: The girls put a crazy looping gizmo on the top of this little room. Not only is this ornament inviting, it also suggests that the theme of play should also be fanciful, like time travel or spinning into space.

Right: Sure, an empty hole could represent the eye, but a slanted Nickel in the hole or cardboard cups make the “eye” symbols much more “readable” by a passerby. These small accents are like adjectives to nouns. They modify the meaning.

Children like to add details to their pretend objects so others will know what the structure represents, adding loops to a flower arrangement or dorsal fins to the back of a dinosaur. The accents can serve as a type of signature when the children work to make their conventional enclosure or tower look different or fun. The accents may not have a pretend physical function, like a giant handle on a giant pretend cup would have. But these accents do have a social function (attract others to your worksite) and a communicative function (to make the horse’s eye look like it is winking). When a child adds an accent, she reveals in what way she thought the structure was incomplete.

2-4 Year Olds

At the youngest ages it may not be clear that the accents add to the readability of a symbol. They like to “stick” accessories on because of the visual fun and tension they create, such as sticking a small plug into a large hole just to have something protrude from the wall. But to this youngest child, that accent is essential and completes something the child felt was missing or needed in the structure as a spatial form only.

4-7 Year Olds

For the older children who create large-scale symbols such as furniture, cars, rocket ships—the accents define the function or meaning of component parts, such as a cup on the armrest of a chair or a gear to represent the U.S. emblem on the rocket ship.

7-10 Year Olds

For still older children the accents mark the social function of a subpart of the structure, such as the Queen’s doorway or a motif used to identify a social clique. You will find that the older children will be eager to accessorize a conventional structure. This is somewhat a way of marking their territory, but also a way of adding status to the structure.

stacks, stairs, and intervals

Left: Stacks result from the simple act of repeatedly placing a new block in the same place. The structure grows and the young children love to see the height.

Right: This girl has made a tiered wall using the more stable method of off-setting each block on a top row to cover the joint between the two blocks below. To do this she has to resist the usual strategy of stacking blocks in adjacent towers.

Structures with repeated intervals require a form of mathematical thinking: “If I continue repeating this same interval the structure will look like what I expect.” In essence, the child is thinking about the way a standard unit can help them predict how something will look if that unit is consistently used. The tiered wall is interesting because the units on each row above are deliberately moved a half-unit over, instead of just placing one block exactly on top of the one below. You could call this principle the N + 1⁄2 rule. The domino row uses a principle of causality called “propagation.” The first block causes the second one to fall, and then the block that was hit becomes the block that hits the third. In this manner an effect is propagated down the line. Each effect becomes a cause as well, an advanced and rather neat concept.

2-4 Year Olds

The repeated intervals for the twos and threes are more likely to come through actions, like taking many long strides, rather than through setting up the blocks with intervals. These actions, too, are a preliminary form of thinking about intervals.

4-7 Year Olds

Young children may repeat the placement of same-size blocks, such as making a stack or row, but will seldom create multiple intervals by adjusting the amount of vacant space between blocks. The vacant space becomes the focus for older children, as you see in the photographs. In some cases the repeated gaps serve only to decorate an otherwise conventional structure.

7-10 Year Olds

The more advanced children will figure out reasons to make repeated gaps the same size, such as starting gates for a foot race or turrets on a castle from which pretend sentries can stand and shoot their arrows. While this merger of form and function may be advanced, the purely decorative patterns have a mathematical elegance to be both admired and understood as important to intellectual development.

the fall-safe factor of foam

Left: The foam blocks do not break when they fall. This young boy stands the cylinder on end, bats it over, and then stands it up to bat again. The foam cylinder gives the child a way to focus some diffuse energy.

Right: Would this boy have created this tall totem if the blocks were made of wood or plastic? The foam allows children to take risks and experiment with even unstable structures.

The foam makes it possible for children to work at close quarters, selecting their blocks and building together without worry of being bumped. And if a structure falls, they just rebuild it and make it even better.

 

 

 

 

 

In effect, the foam increases the range of play that you will see on the playground. Children may never say, “Hey, it’s great that these blocks are made of foam” but you will see evidence of this in their play. The large-scale, light-weight, resilient, and soft blocks make it possible for the children to experiment without worry. Look for cases where children make extra-tall or extra-tipsy structures just to discover the limits of support. Finding the fall limits of structures help children think about the dynamics of structure, the directional lines of force and support, rather than only thinking about the form or arrangement as a static visual whole. Look for cases where high-energy games are able to proceed without worry because of the foam. Some children will find action play more interesting than building.

2-4 Year Olds

The foam has relevance in different ways for children of different ages. For the youngest ages, the foam offers both surprise and comfort. The children are surprised that something so large can be so light. This size-weight illusion will cause the youngest children to carry the blocks around and sort of adopt blocks that are their size. Carrying or standing the blocks on end give them a sense of confidence, command, and power. The softness of the foam also causes the children to personify some of the blocks, like pets or babies.

4-7 Year Olds

For the older children the foam will help them relax and experiment with unusual structures. They will be surprised by the strength of the blocks, such as when they sit on a seesaw they or someone else made. You may find they deliberately knock down walls or rooms they have made as part of a pretend game of “attack the fort,” knowing that the parts will not break.

7-10 Year Olds

A still older group will take advantage of the foam to work in close quarters as they collaborate, or to use the foam as props for action games such as jumping over a noodle hurdle or bowling over an array of upright Plugs with another Plug or the Little Cheese block.

the growth of symmetry

Left: Symmetry can result from the physical requirements of balance or support. Here you see how this child bisects the long tube with her grasp so that it balances in a horizontal orientation as she rocks.

Right: The symmetry of stacked arches results primarily from the physical requirement of two supporting pillars. 

The children make a three-sided, chair- like structure. The “armrests” use the same motif on the right and the left separated by the width of the structure. The “head piece” at the back bisects the back of the chair. Everything is symmetrical.

 

 

 

 

Children have a natural tendency to make structures symmetrical, first because of physical balance and later because of visual balance. Some research suggests that the symmetrical structures children make embody a form of mathematical thinking, i.e. this side equals that side. This happens first by placing two identical blocks side by side, then by bisecting a long block by placing a short one in its middle, and later by placing two small blocks on either side of a larger block (i.e. “bookends’). Sometimes the bookends are themselves complicated motifs of three or four blocks in equivalent arrangements. These structures require more planning and pattern analysis.

2-4 Year Olds

In terms of words children use to talk about the world, younger children actually over- emphasize visual symmetry. For example, a three year old, when asked to explain what balance means after just walking down an I-beam, said, “Holding your arms out like that,” (outstretched like a T). The child treats the visual symmetry as the best description of his balancing, rather than the tiny adjustments he made while walking the beam.

multiple uses of cylinders

Left: The Plug has the shape and feel of a torso, something life-like. We see this child has “adopted” this cylinder as her baby. She has wrapped it in a blanket like a good mother.

Right: Ancient fishing boats moved over the beach at low tide using logs as roller wheels. This young man invented a car that uses that same principle. The last Plug becomes the first as he moves his car forward.

Of all the Loose Parts, the cylinder-shaped Plug has a strong identity appeal. It looks like a little person but because it is a stretched length of round, it also affords many types of dynamic functions such as seesaws, balance games, and axles. It has the power to connect two parts with holes in which it fits. Laying down many Plugs on a flat surface creates a rolling floor, like the early whalers used to get the boats off the beach. In many ways, this cylinder plays a core role in the entire set. It also has the intriguing attribute of being both stable and mobile. Resting on its flat end it is stable. Resting on its round side it is mobile. Children will ponder the orientation of the cylinder much more than they will for the other blocks, given the opposite effects when one changes its orientation.

2-4 Year Olds

In the first stage children will likely treat the Plug as a pretend baby or person. With boys this may occur as a “knock him down” game, with girls as a “take care of him” game. Young children will want to carry, stand, cuddle, and lay on large cylinders. They might even form an emotional attachment to these particular parts.

4-7 Year Olds

For older children, the Plugs will be put into the holes of other blocks, perhaps not to join blocks, but to create a protrusion for the rectangular blocks. The idea of using these cylinders as a pinion to join two or more blocks will require a bit more thought.

7-10 Year Olds

For still older children the full range of functional uses will be seen in teeter-totters, car axles, or pinions to join multiple blocks. As children grow into group games with rules, they will stand the cylinders as goal posts, boundary markers, or slalom gates in their athletic games.

the role of the ball



These children want the ball to roll on its own rather than roll by pushing it along with their hands. So they start the ball even higher than the chute by using the open hole in a tall vertical block.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left: The children roll the ball through the hole as a tunnel. But to increase the time the ball disappears, they extend the tunnel by using extra chutes. The ball turns the holes into an event with surprise—the ball pops out.

Right: The children test the limits of how many curves the ball will roll through without being pushed. They discover that the curves slow the ball down quite a bit. It is not as much fun to push the ball by hand.

The curve of a block has an attractive look, but if it is a chute that directs the movement of a ball, it now has a function as well. A rolling ball gives form a purpose, a consequence. The movement of the ball makes the child think what comes next, i.e. a higher place or a lower place. This sequence matters now, because low to high stops the ball but high to low makes it roll faster. The ball’s movement also causes the child to think about the continuity of the blocks (are there gaps that would trap the ball?), and about the curves of the blocks (will the ball fly out of the track?). All in all, balls transform the static beauty of a structure into a system of causes that direct, deflect, trap, slow, and speed the movement of the ball. Therefore more thinking is required to make the structure “work.”

The rules of ball play also look different across the ages, with the younger children playing simple games of “my turn, then your turn,” and the older children setting up rules that make winning and losing possible, such as, “My ball will get to the finish line first,” or, “You have to have the ball when you tag me or it does not count.”

2-4 Year Olds

Young toddlers will find it a challenge to hold a spherical object. They might be seen walking proudly holding the ball. Holding two balls offers a particular satisfaction. They may put one in each hand, and then bang them together. They will also look for someone to play toss.

4-7 Year Olds

Older children will probably want to roll the ball across the floor or yard as far as it will go. Distance is more their objective than a target. Targets can come with a little encouragement.

7-10 Year Olds

Older children will understand the way inclines work, and will “read” the Chutes as a possible down-ramp for the balls. As you see in the photographs, they test the limits of how far the roll and how complex the path each drop of a ball can complete. They will be reluctant to push the ball, but will do so just to see the ball get to the end of the path.

holes

Left: The hole cuts all the way through the block, and this invites the children to confirm the emptiness of the hole. They look into one side of the hole and see their friend on the other side. It feels like seeing through a solid wall.

Right: As nature abhors a vacuum, young children are impelled to fill an empty hole. Here, a boy places cylindrical parts in each hole of the room structure. An empty hole is an invitation to put something inside.

These older children use the holes to join blocks together with a Small Plug. In this case they discover that the cart they made lopes up and down when rolled because the holes in the wheels are off-center.

 



 

 

Consider how less useful the Imagination Playground Blocks would be without holes. The holes afford games of looking through, filling up, attaching appendages such as noodles and plugs, weaving holes with fabric, securely joining blocks together like tinker toys, and using the holes as the chassis to axles with wheels. The holes, conceptually, are the absence of mass. A hole will not cast a shadow but conversely will cast light within the shadow of the block. Fundamentally, holes allow passage, of sight and of smaller objects, while the block itself does not. Holes can take on the value of an “object” when given names such as a “porthole” or “escape hatch.” These words refer to empty space itself. And what fun—holes show what is on the inside of a block.

2-4 Year Olds

For the two-year–olds, the hole itself serves as the focus of the child’s investigation and play. It may be fun just to put an arm all the way through a hole in a tall block. The child gets joy from this as a form of magic, the way an adult would react by walking through a stone wall. A year or so later, children will begin to plug the holes with noodles as a way to anchor the noodles, like making a pretend flower arrangement or making handles on a huge pretend cup. The holes are just convenient features to hold things in place. The larger holes in the big blocks, however, often serve as windows in a house or turret holes for a castle.

4-7 Year Olds

Older children will search for Blocks with Holes in order to place them in a desired location—on the rim, in the middle, or off-center. For example, they understand how the rotation of the Little Cheese on a Small Plug will be determined by the location of the hole, or which hole they should insert a cylinder into to create either a lollipop or toadstool.

parts that bend

Left: This child makes spider monsters and then lifts them quickly. The long noodles bend, making the pretend spiders appear more animated and menacing, as if alive.

Right: This child makes a noodle bend into a “U” to serve as a huge handle for the Little Cheese. This way the Little Cheese becomes a sort of bumper in front of the boy who has stepped inside of the huge handle he made.

Think of the bendable noodles as an important contrast to the rigid blocks and found pipes. How perfect to have this opportunity to create curves that loop to their beginning point or willowy parts that flex as they move. In general the noodles add value by creating whimsical accents to a large structure or visual continuity across two otherwise separate structures. And the animated flexing of the noodles will arouse many creative ideas about movements that are not possible with rigid limbs, such as the bending of tree branches in the wind or the strain of weights on the ends of a barbell.

2-4 Year Olds

The noodles augment the height and reach of young children. They will love the extension that the noodles provide and will cherish having one or two. The fact that the noodles can bend will probably not be as important to the twos and threes as will be the long length and ease of carrying.

4-7 Year Olds

For older children, bending takes on its own value. They will look for reasons to make loops, usually with both ends connected to the same base block, occasionally between two different blocks.

7-10 Year Olds

The older children will take advantage of the length of the noodle to thread several blocks, but may be disappointed in how the blocks sag. Indeed the very “failure” of the noodle could give them the idea to use something else. Both the length and the flexibility of the noodles will give the older children ideas for play.

cross age play

Left: A four-year-old boy sets up a double ramp using the Arch Chute. A three- year-old friend awaits a chance to test it out with two balls.

Right: A somewhat younger boy in the left foreground waits for the water to flow his way now that the older boys have closed the gap between the blocks.

A father and son work together to build an arch of arches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Collaborative play across ages or generations requires a certain familiarity with the play activity, plus an ability to read the intentions of the other player. True collaboration is more than, “I wait, you build, I use.” Parents are sometimes at a loss on how to motivate or co-play with their children. They don’t want to be too directive, but they do want to feel that this time off from work will be remembered as a fun time together, not just a fun time for the child. The decision regarding what to do can determine the success.

Cross-age play with two-year-olds and four-year-olds will be very different from fours with sevens. For twos with fours, both ages are new to building and you might see positive play. The play may be as simple as the four-year-old building while the two-year-old knocks down. If the four-year- old approves, such play can be fun and can give rise to interesting strategies, such as making the structure harder for the two-year-old to knock down. Sevens are often too impatient to deal with the interests of the fours. At seven, children are intent on mastery and achievement, as well as maintaining a strong affiliation with their peers. In many instances, the best play will occur when the fours and the sevens play in parallel in their own way.

Of course, if the play is between siblings of different ages, there will be more helping from older to younger.

For older children, there is sometimes systematic helping of younger children, particularly from the older girls. Attempts by older children to support the younger children are an extremely positive sign of social development.