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Can development toys increase STEM expertise?

November 25, 2023
Homeschooling Blogs

Lego bricks® and other construction toys may enhance STEM skills — especially when kids follow models or blueprints.

Construction toys — like wooden blocks, Lego® bricks, and Mega Bloks® — present kids with exciting opportunities to tinker and create, and this play is beneficial for development. As I explain elsewhere, block play may foster a wide range of abilities, including motor skills, spatial skills, language skills, and divergent problem solving.

Such abilities are helpful for success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — what educators refer to collectively as “STEM fields.” But there’s more.

Construction play can stoke a child’s interest in STEM, and a particular form of play — called “structured block play” — may be especially beneficial for the development of spatial reasoning,  a form of intelligence that is crucial for STEM achievement. In addition, structured block play might boost a young child’s ability to solve basic arithmetic problems.

How do we know?

Hints that block play encourages a life-long engagement in STEM

Engineer Tiffany Tseng worked for years in the MIT Media Lab,which partners with Lego® to create new educational tools for teaching STEM. And for her, the connection between construction play and engineering is clear. Lego® projects are “a good introduction to communicating ideas with objects,” she notes. “Putting things together and taking them apart got me interested in how things work, and by the time I was an undergraduate, I knew I wanted to be an engineer.”

Given all the Lego® metaphors used in scientific research – on topics ranging from nanoparticles to synthetic biology—it seems likely that playful construction has inspired people in many other fields too.  And the evidence goes beyond the anecdotal.  

For example, in an American survey of high-achieving college graduates, adults holding degrees in STEM fields were  “far more likely than the average American” to have extensive experience with “hands-on” crafts and hobbies, including woodwork, mechanics, and electronics. Individuals reporting a lifelong participation in such activities were more likely to have produced inventions that yielded patents (LaMore et al 2013).

So while the evidence is informal and correlational, it is consistent with the idea the construction play can influence the development of professional aspirations and skills. But what’s happening inside a child’s head? Does construction play truly change the way kids think about spatial relationships? How objects fit together? Does it foster an ability to visualize and manipulate spatial information in the “mind’s eye”?

The connections between STEM, spatial skills and construction play

We know that strong spatial skills are important for achievement in STEM fields.  From a young age, spatial skills are linked with mathematical competence (Kahl et al 2021), and by adolescence, spatial skills are predictive of a child’s long-term outcomes in STEM. Teens are much more likely to end up getting a college degree in STEM if they show advanced spatial ability in high school (Wai et al 2009)

We also know that spatial reasoning isn’t a magical, unchanging talent — something you are born with and can’t improve. As I explain in my article about spatial intelligence, studies confirm that people can make substantial gains through training and practice, and this might be especially true for younger children. When researchers reviewed the results of 20 published studies, they found that the effects of spatial training on young kids were very large (Yang et al 2020).

So spatial skills predict a child’s long-term success in STEM, and spatial ability can be improved dramatically with training. The remaining question is…

Can playful construction activities function as a kind of spatial skills training?

The correlations are there. When researchers test spatial reasoning children, they find links with behavior. Kids with stronger spatial skills happen to be the same kids who spend more of their free time engaged in spatial play — building structures or putting together puzzles (Jirout and Newcombe 2015; Levine et al 2012).

There are also links between spatial skills, math skills, and the complexity of a young child’s constructions. In studies of three-year-olds, the kids who build the most complex structures tend to possess the most advanced knowledge of shapes and numbers (Zhang et al 2020; Bower et al 2020). Research also suggests that preschoolers who can build a specific structure (by copying a block design) are more likely to have stronger numerical skills (Gilligan-Lee et al 2023).

It’s clear, then, that there’s a connection between children’s construction activities and STEM-relevant skills. But we can’t assume that giving a child a pile of blocks is going to have a big impact on his or her ability to reason about shapes and numbers.

For one thing, some of the observed correlations may reflect pre-existing differences between children. Kids with advanced spatial skills may choose to spend more time playing with blocks. And there’s the bigger question of what, exactly, about block play might lead kids to experience the biggest learning gains. There are different forms of block play, and they may have differential cognitive effects.

To see what I mean, imagine two scenarios. In one, a child is happily stacking up blocks. She’s being creative and spontaneous, but she isn’t necessarily following a plan. In the other, the child is doing what I mentioned above: She is attempting to build a specific structure by looking at a template or diagram. Her goal is to reproduce a pre-existing design.

Which scenario is beneficial for boosting spatial skills? Probably both. Manipulating real objects, learning how they can stack and fit together — these experiences are doubtless crucial for young children to develop an intuition about spatial relationships.

However, researchers are particularly interested in the second scenario, where the child attempts to follow a model or blueprint. Researchers call this “structured block play,” and they think it might deliver special benefits for the development of spatial skills.

Why is structured block play so important?

Let’s consider a concrete example. Suppose we gave three-year-old children access to a set of blocks, and asked them to reproduce the design in this photo:

Two lego bricks mounted on top of a third brick.

How difficult is this task? How many three-year-olds are capable of re-creating the design with total accuracy? Brian Verdine and his colleagues presented the problem to more than 100 three-year-olds, and most kids struggled. In fact, only 40% of the children were able to match the design perfectly. For other, more complex patterns (where some pieces were arranged at right angles to each other) the completion rate was under 10% (Verdine et al 2014).

Why were these “match-to-template” tasks so difficult for young children?

In part, it’s because kids are still developing certain general cognitive abilities. They need to be able to stay focused on the subtle features of a problem. They need to override their impulses, and compare different bricks in multiple ways — sometimes by color, sometimes by length. Little kids have more trouble switching back and forth between different sub-tasks (Diamond et al 2010).

This is another way of saying that young children struggle because they lack mature executive function skills. But there’s clearly more going on. To accurately complete these tasks, kids also need strong spatial skills.

They need to analyze what they see, perceive the parts that make up the whole, and figure out how the parts relate to each other. They need to pay attention to angles and orientation. They need to gauge dimensions like length and width – requiring skill in estimation and measurement. It helps, too, if kids can imagine what an object would look like when viewed from different directions.  It’s easier to reproduce accurate structures if you have the ability to rotate geometric shapes in your “mind’s eye.” And of course copying a block design is easier if you are good at detecting symmetry and repetitive patterns (Verdine et al 2014).

So these are the kinds of skills that children must develop to become proficient at structured block play. What about spontaneous, free-wheeling, make-it-up-as-go-along block play? Kids might exercise some of these skills, but it isn’t as crucial that they do so.  Unstructured block play is valuable and important it in its own right. But, say researchers, it probably isn’t as beneficial for helping kids develop advanced spatial ability.

Does this mean we should encourage kids to engage in structured block play? Or that structured block play ought to be added to the school curriculum? There’s experimental evidence in favor of these ideas.

Boosting children’s spatial skills with just a few sessions of structured block play

experimental stimulus: A capital letter

Take the work of Sharlene Newman and her colleagues. These researchers recruited 28 eight-year-olds, and tested the children’s ability to flip and rotate objects in the “mind’s eye.” Kids were asked to look at “scrambled” letters of the alphabet, and determine — by visual inspection only — whether these letters were flipped (“mirrored”) or merely rotated. As children performed these tasks, their brain activity was recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging, of fMRI.

Having obtained this baseline of the kids’ spatial skills, researchers began the experimental phase. Half the kids were assigned to participate in a series of play sessions involving the board game, Scrabble. The remaining kids were assigned to participate in structured block play using the Blocks Rock! STEM Building Blocks Game.

After just five, 30-minute sessions — spread over a period of approximately 12 days — the researchers re-tested the children’s mental rotation abilities. And something had changed, but only for the kids who had engaged in structural block play. These kids showed showed statistically significant improvements in speed and accuracy. Moreover, their brain scans revealed increased activity in areas linked with spatial processing — a pattern consistent with the possibility that these kids were learning to solve mental rotation problems in a new way (Newman et al 2016).

It is a single, small study, and it isn’t clear how the researchers assigned children to the different groups. We need more like it to build a strong case. But the results are consistent with the outcome of earlier work (Casey et al 2008), where investigators instructed kindergartners to build certain structures — like walls of a specified height — with blocks. In that study, kids who participated in construction activities showed a subsequent boost in spatial ability, as measured by their scores on the spatial portion of an IQ test (the WISC-IV).

More recently, Liman Cai and colleagues performed an interesting experiment on 84 kids between the ages of 5 and 6. Half of these children were randomly assigned to sessions of structured block play. The other half were assigned to engage in free (unstructured) block play. After 14 weeks, kids in the structured block play program showed improvements in certain spatially-relevant tasks. They were better able to locate objects using a map. They were also better at using language to communicate with others about the location of objects (Cai et al 2020).

Can structured block play enhance children’s arithmetic skills?

Sharlene Newman and her team haven’t confined their interest to the development of spatial ability. They are also interested in the possible impact of structured block play on the development basic arithmetic skills. So they conducted an experiment on 43 kids – ranging in age between 7 and 9 years – to see if the type of construction play (free versus structured) led to differences in the way kids process arithmetic problems.

In this study, the researchers once again obtained a baseline for each child. Kids were presented with arithmetic problems to solve, and their responses were recorded using both behavioral and fMRI methods. Then kids were assigned to participate in 5 training sessions (each lasting 30 minutes) in block play. These were spread out over approximately three weeks, and they were the same for all participants except for one key difference: For half the children, the play sessions were structured (using the Blocks Rock! STEM Building Blocks Game.) For the other half, kids were simply encouraged to engage in free block play.

When children were re-tested at the end of the study, kids in both groups showed some evidence of improvement in their reaction time when trying to solve arithmetic problems. But improvements were bigger for the structured block play group. And there was an intriguing difference in brain activity:

Kids in the structured block play group experienced distinctive changes in the way their brains processed subtraction problems. Post training, they showed increased activation in parts of the brain associated with spatial working memory (Newman et al 2021).

As with the team’s earlier experiment, it isn’t clear how kids were assigned to the treatment groups, and we can’t jump to conclusions based on any single study. But the results bolster the idea that block play is relevant to mathematical reasoning, and that structured block play may be especially so.

What is the takeaway?

We need more research — randomized, controlled studies — to better understand how structured block play can enhance children’s spatial skills. In the mean time, we have compelling evidence that toy blocks and other construction toys can have a positive impact on children’s development.

As noted in the introduction, research suggests that block play can promote language development, problem-solving skills, and cooperation. Studies also show that kids can improve spatial reasoning with training. And the clues from correlational studies and experiments point in the same direction. Time spent in construction play — and perhaps most especially structured block play — allows kids to practice and hone their spatial skills.

Finally, it’s worth noting: The elements of construction play wooden blocks, repurposed cardboard boxes, Lego bricks®, Lincoln Logs®, Mega Bloks® — are incredibly versatile. Children are free to create whatever they imagine, and, as they grow, they can use the same construction materials, year after year. If you are going to spend money on toys, construction toys are a good investment.

More information

Do you have young children who are ready to play with blocks? Spend some time playing alongside them, and strike up a conversation about their projects. Use spatial language as you consider together how to orient your pieces. Studies show that kids pick up on our use of language, and this may help their develop their spatial skills (Borriello et al 2017).

For additional tips about supporting the development of spatial reasoning, see my article “Why Toy Blocks Rock,” as well as the Parenting Science article, “Improving spatial skills in children and teens: 12 evidence-based tips.”

References: Lego bricks, construction toys, and the benefits of structured block play

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Cai L, Luo J, Zhang H, Ying J. 2020. The Development of Spatial Representation Through Teaching Block-Building in Kindergartners. Front Psychol. 11:565723.

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image of block castle by didecs / istock

image of of blocks on brown desk by Parenting Science

Content of “Lego bricks and other construction toys” last modified 12/2023. Includes portions of text derived from an earlier version of the article by the same author.

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