Counting on Blocks
How block play can help children prepare for math
by Marlene Fritz
When Idaho Parents as Teachers rolled out its interactive Block Fest exhibit in Boise this spring, Debbie Lee and three of her four children were among the first to hit the rubber mats. As the 3- and 6-year-old Lees diligently assembled structures using foam blocks, cardboard boxes, and wooden planks, their Mom viewed their play as building a foundation in mathematics. She called it everything,” in terms of their future learning.
It's great to see them starting at this age.”
Closely observing her industrious 2- and 5-year-old sons, Rachel Mattison admitted she didn't initially see the point of one block station's small, colorful unit” cubes. But after watching her children count, sort, and make elaborate patterns with them, she said, There's a ton of value in them. I think every children's store in town is going to be mobbed by parents buying blocks after this.”
His block play offers opportunities
to measure, order, balance, and count
as he becomes aware of symmetry,
shape, and quantity. Research shows
block play helps children develop an
informal understanding that provides
a foundation on which formal
mathematics can be built. UI-sponsored
Parents as Teachers encourages block
play statewide to help parents promote
early math and science development
and better prepare their kids
for math educations.
Pam Benham photo
Those aha's” by parents were precisely the intention when the UI's Diane Demarest, Shelli Hansen, Patti O'Hara, and Harriet Shaklee first sat down with Carolyn Kiefer of the Idaho Head Start Collaboration and Holly MacLean of the Treasure Valley Math and Science Center to design the traveling educational exhibit with its vibrant, festival flair.
It's also what sold the Micron Foundation when it generously contributed funding, and what convinced then Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and First Lady Patricia Kempthorne to host a gala reception for Block Fest at the Capitol.
blocks leads to good math scores and "numeracy"”
Such construction play” as block-building gives kids a leg up on "numeracy"--the
mathematical equivalent of literacy--says Demarest, program coordinator for
the UI's statewide Parents as Teachers Demonstration Project.
PAT is an early-childhood parent-education and family-support program that serves families with children from birth through kindergarten-entry.
Researchers have shown a significant relationship between children's preschool block performance and the number of math courses taken and math grades achieved in high school. Studies in Great Britain and Australia have found that a three-year gap in mathematical understanding among 4-year-olds expands to a 7-year gap by 10th grade.
Photos by Pam Benham
Lacking--children involved in math at home. Parents can help a lot
With the U.S. facing stiff economic competition from countries whose students score higher on international tests of math and science, that's a gap we simply must close, Demarest says.
Children primed for numeracy. Fortunately, children appear to be primed for numeracy. According to PAT project assistant Patti O'Hara, studies indicate that even young infants can distinguish differences in quantity in the first few months of life, and young children can solve non-verbal calculation problems by the age of three.
But, in the U.S., children are rarely involved in explicit mathematical activities at home, perhaps in part because of their parents' own underdeveloped skills in--or even aversion to--math.
Missed opportunities. Without realizing it, many American parents miss the opportunity to create a positive disposition for math that's clearly a part of the Asian family experience, Demarest says. Some researchers believe that may be the underlying reason why Asian children outperform American kids in math.
Help your kids discover math
At home, just as at Block Fest's five play stations, O'Hara recommends that parents use blocks not to teach mathematics concepts but to help their children discover them. Be a facilitator and let math be one of the pieces that fall into place,” she says.
Although blocks aren't the only way children learn numeracy or science, they're such a cool, fun one,” Demarest notes.
- Give children the hands-on experience to develop a sense of quantity
- Allow them to practice with such mathematical concepts as counting, estimating, equality, adding, planning, classifying, and volume
- Let them evolve through such construction-play stages as making simple stacks, complex stacks, and enclosures and planning structures that have patterns and symmetry
- Introduce them to such scientific concepts as weight, mass, and size
- Encourage them to solve problems
Demarest advises parents to give their block-playing toddlers and preschoolers uninterrupted time--from 10 minutes to an hour--and an out-of-the-way spot where they can add or subtract to their structures for several days. As the children build, parents can show interest and ask such open-ended questions as why, how, and what if?
PLAY WITH BLOCKS engages all areas
of development. Children above balance
on or move on blocks using small and
large motor skills. As they invite peers
to join in (right), they plan and
communicate, exercising social and
language skills. Playing with blocks
builds math skills when parents
talk with children about what
they're seeing and doing.
Photos by Pam Benham
Ask leading questions
At the first Boise Block Fest in late February, volunteer and retired kindergarten teacher Sally Terrill modeled parents' optimum interactions: Can you find another rectangle? What can you do with four blocks?” she asked the children.
Kids need to see shapes, they need to touch shapes, they need to build shapes; they need to see it before it becomes real,” says Terrill. But the experience without the language is not as valuable.”
According to Demarest, there's an essential take-home lesson for representatives of commerce, industry, education, and government as well. Investing in early learning is an important strategy to address the growing demand for the math and science skills needed in a technology-driven economy. There's so much discussion of math competence in high school, but we have to get kids ready before then.”
Contact Demarest at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tips to help
children with math come from Every Child Ready for Math: Math Tips for Parents, at the Lee Pesky Learning Center.
To find out when Block Fest is coming to your town, click on www.blockfest.org.
- Sing songs with repetition or make up your own counting song.
- Group blocks or other safe household objects by color and shape.
- Say the names of objects and include their characteristics: The ball is round.
- Let your child touch things, move objects, and pull knobs to learn how the world works.
- Touch objects as you count them for your child. Practice counting to five, then ten.
- Build towers with different colored blocks.
- Trace around objects on paper with large crayons to see the shapes.
- Encourage imaginative play by providing boxes of all shapes and sizes.
- Allow your child to help measure in the kitchen.
- Make necklaces with large wooden beads, colored macaroni, or cereal pieces to show color patterns.
- Use play dough to make animals.
- Play adding and subtracting games: You have three balls. If I take away one ball, how many do you have left?