Markian Hawryluk
The Bulletin

Parents can sometimes spend lavishly on the latest DVD or interactive toy that promises to speed their children’s development. Yet a new study from the University of Washington suggests that the decidedly old-school set of blocks might be more effective.

Researchers led by Dr. Dimitri Christakis of the Seattle Children’s Hospital gave two sets of blocks to the parents of 88 toddlers and suggested activities that families could do with the blocks, such as sorting them by color or building a bridge. The parents were asked to keep a daily diary of activities and respond to a questionnaire. A second group of parents received no blocks but filled out the same diary and questionnaire.

Some 59 percent of parents who received the blocks reported block play in their diaries, compared with 13 percent of parents who hadn’t received blocks from the researchers. The children who received blocks scored an average 15 percent higher in a language assessment than children who did not. Children in low- and middle-income families receiving blocks showed the most improvement with significantly higher language scores. The researchers said parents in those economic groups may be constrained by time, and lack the resources to provide a stimulating environment for their kids.

“Playing together remains the best way parents can help foster their young children’s development,” Christakis says. “Our findings point to a pragmatic and fun way to improve language acquisition. Though many toy manufacturers claim their products improve children’s cognitive abilities, few such claims are substantiated by research.”

In August, Christakis and his colleagues reported that baby DVDs, such as Baby Einstein or Brainy Baby, which claim to help make a child smarter, more literate or more musical, may actually hinder infants’ ability to acquire language.

They found that for every hour that infants watched the baby DVDs, they understood six to eight fewer words than infants who did not watch them.

“In my clinical practice, I am frequently asked by parents what the value of these products is,” Christakis says. “The evidence is mounting that they are of no value and may in fact be harmful. Given what we now know, I believe the onus is on the manufacturers to prove their claims that watching these programs can positively impact children’s cognitive development.”

Pediatricians recommend that parents not expose their child to television or other media until age 2. Previous studies have linked television viewing in early childhood with language and attention problems, as well as cognitive delays. Studies suggest that children do not react the same way to words and phrases from the televisions as they do to those spoken in person.

The researchers said the block intervention resembled a very successful nationwide program known as Reach Out and Read, in which pediatricians distribute books to children at their routine appointments. The program was shown to improve reading and literacy. The block distribution could be a sort of “reach out and play” program that could further improve development, they said.

Early childhood is a critical period in a child’s development. The brain triples in size from birth to age 2. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, free play, where a child controls the progression of the activity, is critical for development.

The researchers explained that handling objects, such as blocks, children begin to develop a mental picture and cognitive understanding of the objects around them. They learn key concepts such as object permanence and develop memory. Children may use a mental image of an object to satisfy themselves as they wait for the real object, developing impulse control.

As they begin to manipulate the objects, they learn about their qualities. Older children will begin to make up stories or scripts for these objects, allowing for further language development.

The researchers suggested that handing out the toy blocks resulted in more block play, and this playtime replaced other time spent in activities that don’t promote language development. It could also have been that block play specifically replaced television time.

The blocks used in the study were manufactured and donated by Mega Bloks. The first set was large and designed specifically for children in the targeted age groups. The second set of blocks was smaller and had images of cars and people on them. The “blocktivities” suggested in the newsletters are now included with the blocks when they are sold in stores.

‘Blocktivities’

Researchers from Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute devised a number of simple playtime activities using blocks to promote interaction between parents and infants. This interaction was shown to be effective at developing language skills.

1. Basic block play

Simply let your child play freely with the blocks.

2. Block animals

Prompt your child to pick a favorite animal and then attempt to build it out of the blocks.

3. How high?

Build a tower out of blocks in any configuration your child desires. How high can you go before it crumbles?

4. Tube shoots

Tape a hollow mailing tube vertically to the leg of a chair. Leave a space, at least five inches between the floor and the end of the tube. Show your child how to place blocks in the top end of the tube so that they come out the other end. Create a banister chute by taping a longer tube to a banister or railing.

5. Over the edge

Tie or tape a block to a piece of string. Connect the other end of the string to your child’s highchair. Place the blocks on the highchair tray. Show your child how the blocks can be thrown off the edge of the tray and then retrieved by pulling on the string.

6. Block dominoes

Line up as many long, thin blocks as you wish vertically, making sure they are close to one another, as you would a line of dominoes. Using another block as a toy truck, crash the truck into the first block and watch the rest tumble one by one. Experiment by lining the blocks up to form different patterns.

7. Odd color out

Take four blocks of one color and a fifth of a different color. Pick up the odd color and tell your toddler “This is a (name color) block.” Place the single block among the other four blocks and mix them together. Ask your child to pick out the odd color block. Later on, ask your child to pick out a certain color block from a mix of different colored blocks.

8. Seriation

Help your child sort blocks by size. Start with only two blocks for toddlers.

9. Block identification

Help your child sort the blocks by color, size or other distinguishing features.

10. Block bowling

Help your child stack blocks to create five towers or pins. Show your toddler how to roll a ball and knock them down.

11. Block soccer

Build a soccer goal out of blocks. (If blocks do not connect, create a u-shaped goal flat on the ground.) Show your child how to kick or roll the ball into the goal.

12. Block basketball

Build a square out of blocks and then, using a ball or a rolled up pair of socks, show your child how to throw the ball into the hoop.

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