Researchers at the University of Delaware and Temple University discovered that block play also helps low-income preschoolers who may be behind in spatial skills.
The study is published in the journal Child Development.
Researchers followed more than a hundred 3-year-olds of various socioeconomic levels. They discovered that children who were better at copying block structures were also better at early math.
Among the skills tested were whether children could figure out that a block belongs above or below another block and whether they aligned the pieces.
The study also found that by age 3, children from lower-income families were already falling behind in spatial skills, likely as a result of more limited experience with blocks and other toys and materials that facilitate the development of such skills.
And parents of low-income toddlers reported using significantly fewer words such as “above” and “below” with their children.
The use of blocks to improve foundation skills for math and science is an ancient technique. Blocks are affordable and enjoyable, and they’re easily used in preschool settings.
Giving children — especially those from low-income families — such toys to play with can help them develop skills that will have long-lasting effects on later STEM-related educational outcomes, the researchers suggest.
The children’s spatial skills were assessed using a block-building task. Math skills were examined using a measure developed for 3-year-olds that focuses on a wide range of skills, from simple counting to complex operations like adding and subtracting.
“Research in the science of learning has shown that experiences like block building and puzzle play can improve children’s spatial skills and that these skills support complex mathematical problem solving in middle and high school,” said Brian N. Verdine, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Delaware and one of the study’s authors.
“This is the first research to demonstrate a similar relationship in preschoolers.”