01/23/2014 12:02 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2014

A Chip Off the Old Block? Block Play May Help Children's Spatial and Mathematical Thinking

We love technology. If it talks to us, requires a charge and responds to a touch, we gotta have it. But is the same true for our kids? Although they love these devices too -- just ask any parent with an iPhone or tablet -- should parents be tempted to forgo purchasing those colorful blocks and puzzles that have been staples in children's toy chests for centuries? A study we are just about to publish in the journal, Child Development suggests that opting for an electronic toy over that block set might be a big mistake. Playing with blocks may be crucial for helping preschoolers develop "spatial thinking." We use spatial thinking all the time -- like when we pack up the trunk of our car for a trip, or use a map or envision where the triangular block goes in relation to the square blocks. These are just the kinds of skills that support learning in science, technology, engineering and math (often called STEM skills). And spatial tasks like block building don't only have payoff for developing spatial skills. Putting block structures together and taking them apart may yield important lessons for math, where after all, we add units and take units away all the time.

In our study (conducted with Brian Verdine, Alicia Chang, Andrew Filipowicz and Professor Nora Newcombe), we asked three-year-old girls and boys to copy six structures we built out of blocks. So, for example, we showed each child a block structure made out of four blocks and asked them to make the same thing. We gave them the exact number of blocks they needed, but all separated. Not so simple for a three-year-old. For one thing, the blocks have little pips on them -- those bumps on the block that allow the children to tightly fit one block on top of the other. If a child puts a block over the wrong pips, they made a mistake. And children have to notice whether a block in the model is horizontal or perpendicular to the block on the bottom.

Drumroll please! We found that both boys and girls who were better at copying the block designs were also better on math problems that don't involve language -- like when you slip two black disks under a cover and then slip in one more and ask children how many disks they have now. They don't see the disks, so they can't count them. Instead they have to keep in mind how many are under the cover and what adding one more disk comes to. Block building takes memory and noticing "how many" too, because of the pips on the blocks. So our research and other studies suggest that experiences with building blocks may turn out to be building a foundation for understanding math. Calling someone a blockhead has a whole new meaning!