How do unit blocks help children learn?

A few bits of wood have taught young children abstract concepts for 100 years

The Economist explains Jul 11th 2013 by G.F. | SEATTLE

A humble set of wooden shapes celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Unit blocks, developed by early-childhood education pioneer Caroline Pratt in 1913, are wooden bricks, in carefully chosen sizes and shapes, found in classrooms in America and beyond for the past century. Ms Pratt designed her blocks while standing on the shoulders of giants, notably Friedrich Fröbel, the originator of kindergarten education, who believed in the value of play to shape behaviour and aid in children’s intellectual and emotional growth. How do unit blocks help children learn?

Fröbel spent the first half of the 19th century tinkering with the oddball notion that even very young children could learn scientific, artistic and natural principles simply by playing with various physical objects, which he called “gifts”. This was a big departure from the idea of learning via adult-led activities or, for older children, rote memorisation. Fourth in Fröbel’s series of 20 age-calibrated gifts was a set of eight blocks, sized ½ by 1 by 2 inches, or a 1:2:4 ratio, that could be formed into a cube.

Fröbel’s principles were widely adopted after his death in 1852, albeit in a simplified form, but the idea of using concrete objects to establish a basis for later abstract knowledge remained at the centre of this approach. One of his followers, Patty Hill, created her own set of blocks nearly 20 times larger with pegs, holes and grooves that required cooperation among children to create large constructions. (With her sister Mildred, Hill also composed the song that became “Happy Birthday to You”.) She found Fröbel’s blocks too small for toddlers to grasp. Pratt, a contemporary of Hill’s, observed her blocks at work and charted a middle course. Her unit blocks are bigger than Fröbel’s but small and lightweight enough to allow for either individual or collaborative building. The basic unit is 5½ by 2¾ by 1⅜ inches (140 by 70 by 35mm).

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