It seems that children have always been playing with building blocks, of one type or another. We did, our parents did, and so did our ancestors.
I believe that there is an “inherent” drive to build, whether it is to fulfill our need for creativity and imagination or trying to somehow make things better then they were. Most of us seem to require symmetry and a sense of regularity in our surroundings. This drive can be seen in the smallest child’s play. There is a unmistakable compulsion to stack one thing on top of another, and bind sticks and twigs together to form a more interesting object. Plus the drive to build spans across both boys and girls as well as, the young to seniors. It remains intact!
I was wondering how far back does the history really go? What is the real history of the humble building block and how long has it really been around as a toy?
History of Toy Blocks
To begin to answer this question about when building blocks were first used, it was interesting to find it started out as a ‘learning tool’. I began looking for references for blocks used a as learning tool or anything else. What I found was quite amazing!
I found a very interesting article Blocks As a Tool for Learning: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives by Karen Hewitt. In this editorial, Ms Hewitt explains that there are references to toy blocks being used as a learning devices in the writings of Plato (429-347 B.C.).
There are numerous other references to blocks as educational toys for example in 1693 John Locke, the English Philosopher wrote, an essays , where he felt that play toys and dice with alphabet lettering painted on them would make learning to read more enjoyable for children. He spoke of “Alphabet Nursery Blocks“ that “The chief art is to make all that [children] have to do, sport and play too. . . . Learning anything they should be taught, might be made as much a recreation to their play, as their play is to their learning.”
In 1837 ,Friedrich Wilhelm Froebel, the originator of the kindergarten system, introduced geometric solids carved from wood. Known as Froebel “gifts”
they soon led to alphabet blocks.
He was known as the first person to use the word kindergarten for the Play and Activity Institute he had founded in 1837 for young children, He designed the educational play materials known as
“Froebel Gifts”, or Fröbelgaben, which included geometric building blocks and pattern activity blocks. He had great insight was to realizing the importance of the activity of the child in learning. He introduced the concept of “free work” and established the “game” as the typical form that life took in childhood, and also the game’s educational worth.
By the 1880’s, The Embossing Company of Albany, New York patented “ornamenting wood”, a patent related to painting or coloring a block surface prior to the embossing process and then adding another color after embossing to create multi-colored blocks. In 19th –Century America, these toys became a staple of schools and nurseries and sold for only a few cents. It was eventually bought out by Halsam Products Company who were already well-known “as the country’s largest producer of embossed wood products. It had produce the Embossing Company’s line of the ABC and building blocks, dominoes and checkers.”
In the early years, of the twentieth century, Caroline Pratt developed a variety of wooden shapes she called Unit Blocks, a series of geometrical forms devised on a cohesive scale. Pratt put the unpainted wooden blocks she had made at the center of her teaching, first at a settlement house and then at a private nursery school in New York City. Along with other influential teachers of the time, she embraced the idea that free play with blocks gave children the materials to explore and test their ideas, and to develop an experimental outlook.
Witold Rybczynski wrote a book, Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture . Here he has a specific chapter on Little Architects, Little Architecture pg 183, where he quotes many other authors before his time that all felt the playing with blocks was the beginning to opening up the world of growth and expansion.
Building blocks do not need to be expensive, or trendy. They just need to be safe for the child who is using them. When I was a child my dad enjoyed carpentry and my mom was always sewing. As a result I had a never ending supply of toys that were a combination of random sized wooden blocks and old wooden thread spools. Although it was no cost to my parents, they were the best toys I ever had.
While I’m not sure that example would work for today’s more sophisticated children. Blocks have been the basis of all learning since the beginning of time and should not be dismissed or replaced by technology without looking at all the benefits.
The tradition of ABC Blocks continues to this day. Others have expanded on this old concept of creativity and imagination through “play” from simple blocks- to a whole different array of products for the minds of modern children.
This simple toy that I use to find scraps to play with for hours has now many descriptors; building plank (Keva), building blocks (LEGO is the largest manufacturer), or Blocks. They come in different composites; many different wood types (Tinkertoy and Lincoln logs), plastic (LEGO, Megabloks, and Nano Blocks). They can also be motorized (Lego Technic) and some now are robotic (Mindstorm). They are also finding a home in theme based sets of movies and games such as Disney’s Frozen, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings , and video games like Minecraft.
The conclusion I have reached, is children have a compulsion to learn. It is our responsibility as parents and teachers to feed that need as early and as often as possible. The alternative is that a child would feel empty or frustrated and would eventually dull the desire to learn in any capacity. So why not have fun watching them develop like we did with all different types of building blocks for our children.
This video is a good example of people coming together to help simulate the creative side in a child. I hope you enjoy it!
Building Blocks – If Kids Ruled The City
until we meet again…
Barb & Walt