Using Building Toys in the Classroom

May 6, 2019
Children of any age always appreciate building toys in the classroom. Not only are they lots of fun; they're also educational and teach children many valuable conceptual skills.

Children get excited when there are building toys in the classroom. They create and imagine things by putting pieces together and taking them apart again. The use of building toys in the classroom teaches children how to resolve problems and to start something over when necessary.

Although the level of difficulty and the nature of the task may change, children of almost any age enjoy building activities and experimenting with new materials. Children as young as one year old like to arrange blocks and even adolescents can spend hours absorbed in this kind of activity, which to them only seems like “play.”

Moreover, building toys help children to develop a number of skills. We’re going to highlight a number of these benefits below.

Building toys develop fine motor skills

Fine motor skills are the ability to use the small muscles in your hands, wrists, and fingers. We use these abilities to pick up and grasp things or when writing, for example.

Yvonne Caldera is a Human Development and Family Studies specialist. Along with her colleagues, she carried out a study that was highly significant.

They observed 51 preschool-aged children while engaging in building activities and they discovered a pattern: the children who showed more interest in building things created more sophisticated structures.

These children also demonstrated better spacial intelligence on standardized tests.

Building toys teach better spatial awareness

The same pattern has been reported in other studies like that by Oostermeijer in 2014. It seems like children with advanced spatial abilities are very motivated by building toys in the classroom. Furthermore, there are good reasons to think that building toys have an impact on children’s development.

An experimental study recently showed the effects of constructive play with a block toy; the kind of game where children build a structure from a model or set of instructions.

A group of 8-year-old children participated in the study. They carried out 5 sessions of structured play with block toys that each lasted about 30 minutes. Afterward, all the children showed improvements in mental rotation.

Additionally, brain scans showed changes in the way their brains processed spatial information. Children in a control group didn’t show these changes (Newman, 2016).

Structured play with building toys in the classroom can improve cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the capacity to change focus quickly from one relevant stimulus to another. Therefore, it’s very important for a child’s cognitive development.

Sara Schmitt (Perdue University) and her colleagues carried out a study in 2018 on structured play with building blocks. For this, they picked a classroom of children at random.

In the first sessions, the tasks were relatively simple. For example, the children were instructed to “build a tower.” As the children became more familiar with the materials, they were asked to complete more complicated tasks. For example, “copy the structure that you see in the image.”

At the end of the study, the children that had participated in games using construction blocks showed improvements in cognitive flexibility.

Stimulation of creative and divergent problem-solving skills

Psychologists recognize two main types of problems:

  • Convergent problems: they have only one correct solution.
  • Divergent problems: there are many ways to solve them.

Children can put together blocks (or pieces) in various ways, so playing with building toys can be a divergent task. Divergent play with building toys can prepare children to think creatively. 

Doctor Debra Pepler (a psychologist from York University) and Doctor Hildy Ross (a psychologist from the University of Waterloo) carried out an experiment in 1981. They presented pre-school children with two types of play materials:

  • Some children were given convergent play materials (puzzle pieces).
  • Others were given divergent play material (block-shaped foam pieces).
  • All the children were given time to play.
  • Afterward, they tested their capacity to resolve problems.

The results showed that children who had played with foam blocks (a divergent building toy) were better at managing divergent problems. Additionally, they showed more creativity in resolving problems.

Cooperative constructive play helps children to improve their social skills

Studies show that children become more sociable when they work in groups. They also expand their emotional and social intelligence using cooperative constructive play with their classmates and friends.

They have proven that children with autism who attend group sessions of constructive play showed improvements in sociability when compared to children trained in the social use of language (Doctor Lauren Owen, University of Sheffield, 2008).

Other research on children with standard levels of social development suggests the same. Children that work on cooperative projects with these toys form better quality friendships.

Using Building Toys in the Classroom

Developing engineering skills with constructive games in the classroom

It’s easy to see how constructive games can teach children important lessons about architecture and engineering. A builder who builds structures at a small scale has to abide by the same laws of physics as a structure at full scale.

When it comes to the physical properties of objects, studies suggest that students learn best when they can experiment first-hand. Likewise, building toys give children an excellent opportunity to learn and develop their intuitive understanding of mechanical forces.

Therefore, taking all this into account, we can say that constructive games are an excellent educational investment for the classroom. LEGOs are everyone’s favorite toy, but we can also search for others that are useful and appealing to children.

For example, the wooden KEVA Contraptions Plank Set is highly recommended. Also, KAPLA planks are very appropriate for children beginning at 3 years old.