My kids love building blocks. Here’s why experts say playing with them is crucial | Sophie Brickman

We know how important play and imagination are to children. But what is it about building, specifically, that feels so necessary?

David Beckham apparently unwinds at the end of a long day by playing with Lego, which he’ll do until the wee hours – two, three, four in the morning. “It relaxes me,” he said during an interview.

It’s something I thought about a lot earlier this year, as my family existed in the perpetual, foggy fugue state otherwise known as “everyone got Covid the day before we were supposed to go on our first family vacation in more than two years, and so now we’re stuck in our apartment and can’t leave, and we thought this was over, already”.

What did we do to pass the time? We watched movies. We made enough banana bread to feed China. We read books, and threw balls back and forth across the living room. We stretched together to the Cosmic Kids Yoga sessions that immediately flashed me back to those harrowing days in March 2020, when we were all Lysoling our vegetables and banging on kitchen pots to cheer on frontline workers as we watched the world unravel. And we built. Magna-Tile castles. Lego playgrounds. Lincoln Log villages. For hours on end. We combined all three materials, making Lincoln Log seesaws that ringed a blue Magna-Tile pool. We used triangles to make neon-colored Magna-Tile pizzas, which we served on Lego picnic tables. And as the piles of tissues around us grew – as the preschooler tested positive, then the baby, then my husband, as the kindergartner was the last one standing, as I thanked my lucky stars we knew more about this devastating virus and only had minor symptoms – we built our way to bedtime. Then we woke up, and did it again.

We all know how important free play and imagination are to children’s brains – it’s a cornerstone of human development, and one of the many reasons the trend of sitting kids in front of screens and relying on technology for entertainment instead of requiring that they generate it themselves has been such a terrifying digital age evolution. But what was it specifically about building, I found myself wondering as we constructed towers, crashed them down, and erected them again, that was so innate, so soothing, so necessary? And why was it so satisfying to me, a grown woman who once got so overwhelmed by a set of Ikea instructions for a dresser that she lived for weeks with her socks and underwear in little piles on the floor?

In my attempt to get at an answer, and as the house’s collective snot production started to wane, I came across a charming little book. Published in 1933 by one Harriet M Johnson, The Art of Block Building treats children’s play structures with the same solemnity as an art critic visiting a new exhibition.

“One feels a lovely balance in Ingrid’s building, made at three years, seven months,” Johnson writes on one page. “The really dramatic quality about these young builders is not their mastery of techniques but their attitude towards the material,” she writes on another.

Johnson was the founder, and then director, of the first ever laboratory nursery school in America, and a pioneer of the belief that early childhood was critical to later life success. She intuited that engaging with block building and construction was something innate to humans, and writes of a child’s “impulse” – the impulse to build, to name the structure, to dramatize what is going on around the structure – that is born nearly when they are. Yes, block building has baked-in engineering and mathematical concepts, and the activity has been linked to nearly every possible pre-school readiness skill: being good at math, having increased spatial awareness, cooperating and showing higher verbal ability. But for Johnson, just like for Beckham, the point of the play was more fundamental: it was, simply, to build. Whatever enrichment came from the activity was secondary.

As time simultaneously constricted and expanded, bedtime somehow growing farther away as the day progressed, I joined my children in clicking blocks together, stacking them up, leaning them at weird angles, building bridges. “My tower has bunny ears!” the preschooler crowed. My own connection to the outside world grew increasingly tenuous, but I found myself unclenching my jaws and relaxing into the play, reconnecting with some pre-Ikea self that once enjoyed focusing on a task without an end goal in mind.

“There is a pleasurable component for most of us in messing around with our hands,” Stuart Brown told me over the phone. “It’s an intrinsic part of our nature to enjoy hand-brain activity, which you’re doing with this construction-play. We lose that in the march towards adulthood, where it’s not quite as easy to access.”

Brown is the founder of the National Institute of Play, a non-profit with the mission of studying the transformative power of play and applying it liberally to society. Decades ago, when lending his psychiatric services to a government commission investigating Charles Whitman, a marine veteran who killed 15 people from the tower of the University of Texas in 1966, he became attuned to the profound effect of the absence of play on homicidal men. In the intervening years, he’s come to believe that, for all ages, play can be as important to public health as other more mainstream initiatives.

As we spoke, he mentioned the concept of “hand-brain coevolution”, the theory that the size of our brains, and our species’ unique cognitive capacity, is tied inextricably to the development of a hand that could throw rocks and make tools. It undergirds Johnson’s observations: the urge to click blocks together, to create and build, to touch and explore, is deeply embedded in being human.

Brown labeled my week of construction time my “play vaccination” and told me that this inoculation, gained during minds-on moments when we’re plugged into silliness, fun, and pleasure without a purpose, is perhaps more critical to society – adults and children alike – than ever before, as we all come out of a period of tremendous anxiety and pressure. While these pockets of time may be hard to come by as adults, they’re arguably easiest for us parents, who live with members of the under-four-foot crowd. “It’s something you need to up your spirit, to increase connections in the brain, to alter your mood,” he said. “Play has very profound and powerful ramifications.”

Just as we finished our quarantine, news of the war in Ukraine broke. The last few nights before bedtime stories and lullabies, we’ve continued to get down on the floor and build together. Who knows if this activity will stick. But it’s nice to know that even if our world gets smaller, even if the world continues to roil outside, we can take a few moments to build our way out.


Sophie Brickman

The GuardianTramp

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