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Lessons from the Block Shelves

Guest blogger: Diann Gano, M.Ed.


Earlier this month, we talked about the math explosion that took place during our block play. I shared the delight of capturing a play buzz to knock out early learning standards through play. To my astonishment, our play buzz continued all the way through our pickup activities and, let me just say, that never happens! We usually have one older “organizer” who likes to put the unit blocks in their specific spaces, but the younger children struggle just to find any shelf in the room that will work. So, when I saw the empty shelves actually being organized in order, I took note.

“Here’s a circle!” calls out two-year-old Eleanor. “That goes here. My mom calls this a cylinder,” says four-year-old Noah. “A silly-der?” asks a confused two-year-old. “No, a cylinder!” A burst of giggles is followed by the two-year-old trying again and again and again—to the hysterical delight of her friends. Finally, the play moment is over and the two-year-old impresses the group by naming the block correctly: “Your mom calls this a cylinder!” Applause and dancing ensue. During this rare but engaging pick-up period, we have all the elements needed to build the brain. We have movement. We have physical touch. We have mentoring and experimenting. When we fail, there is not a meltdown in sight, because there is always a friend nearby to show us the correct solution. We have conversations, rationalizing, cooperation, observation, design and data collection, as well as sorting, grouping and problem-solving. We have hit the nirvana of meeting learning standards with hands-on learning and communicating!

“The long blocks go here.”
“We can put two triangles together to make a square and stack them here.”















By turning a block in a different direction, it completely changes how it fits on the shelf. I watch the little wheels turning in Saaliha’s head. It’s deep thinking, she is silent, she tries different ways, she puts the block down only to pick it back up to try again. She sees another friend place a block in effortlessly. She turns her block in the same direction and tries again. Success! There is no celebration. There is a search for another matching block to cement this learning in her brain.








Early Learning Standard 9.A.ECe gets checked off the list! I am not convinced that Saaliha’s brain was ready for this on paper. The brain may not have been able to see it on a worksheet. When we put the objects in their hands and the vocabulary in their world, the pieces of the puzzle can make their way into the brain. Make the learning real!











As educators, we are so often running around putting out fires, that the documentation is a struggle. Play buzzes give us that time to stand back and actually observe the learning that is happening in front of us. This is a great time to just put your phone or camera on video. Target the group or the individual child you need data on. When we are indoors, the majority of our play buzz moments will come in that block room. Blocks are always developmentally correct for the child who is interacting with them. If your program doesn’t have a block area, try to make it happen. It will enrich the lives of everyone in the room. If you have a block area, carve out a nice LONG period of time to get down on the floor and start the play buzz. I promise you, your assessment will be met.

Diann Gano, M.Ed.

Diann Gano—who opened her family child care program, Under the Gingko Tree in 1986—has long believed that "the earth gives us what we need to learn" and that nature is "the perfect environment for little brains to grow and learn in every day." While conducting research for her master’s thesis on outdoor learning in early childhood settings, she learned about the Nature Explore Classroom Certification Program, which recognizes schools and other organizations that have made a commitment to providing outdoor classrooms and comprehensive programming to help children use the natural world as an integral part of learning. She enrolled in the Nature Explore Classroom certification program after completing her master’s degree in 2010, and Under the Ginkgo Tree was certified as a Nature Explore Certified Outdoor Classroom Program in 2011. A member of the Erikson Family Child Care Portal Project Advisory Board, Gano has also participated in the Erikson Institute’s Early Childhood Leadership Summit and served as a webinar panelist for Town Square Illinois, an online resource and professional development tool for home-based providers. She has presented at the local, state and national levels on topics such as indoor and outdoor learning environments, the importance of loose parts in early math education and the impact of immersion in the natural world on brain development in young children. In 2016, Gano was honored as a recipient of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Child Care Innovator Award for creating a school environment that inspires children to become more active and engaged learners. In May 2019, she received the prestigious Terri Lynn Lokoff/Children’s Tylenol National Teacher Award, which honors 50 outstanding early child care professionals across the nation each year for making a lasting difference in the lives of the children they serve and setting them on a path to success in school and in life. She received her BS in liberal arts from Western Illinois University and her MEd in education from St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana.

Read more posts by Diann Gano, M.Ed.

30 Replies to “Lessons from the Block Shelves”

  1. Learning about how children can learn at any age is amazing children learn how to count do patterns do pattern ruler do a pattern sequence pattern number it’s good to know we hav many patterns children can learn from

  2. I learned about vocabulary how children can learn through books through Storys through the teacher talkin vocabulary is very important to young children and even school-age children as they learn.

  3. I learned about vocabulary how children can learn through books through Storys through the teacher talkin vocabulary is very important to young children and even school-age children as they learn.

  4. Teaching children about environment can be fun in the way you bring it out I learned that children can learn and many different ways of math and preschool and toddlers can also learn as it is being tauhgt.

  5. Blocks are an amazing tool for toddlers and preschoolers and work for math attributes. Math is important any age.

  6. Sorting and organizing blocks is one of my kiddos favorite things to do! They do it and do not even realize that they are learning since they are playing in their opinion!

  7. Block play is a phenomenal way to learn spatial reasoning and to “listen in” on what children actually know and can verbalize about shapes and the space they occupy.

  8. It’s always fun to see how children turn the block area into a sea of learning. I love that just the process of clean up has spurred so many different learning topics.

  9. So many different aspects of math can be found in the block center. It is amazing to watch the children learning and exploring. I really appreciate the the fact pointed out that the child may not have recognized the connection in a pencil and paper task. Play is learning!

  10. Block play is a favorite in my classroom. I have seen older toddlers (almost 3 years old) balancing different shapes, problem solving when one type of shape doesn’t balance on another. I see them get excited about how tall it gets and counting how many blocks they used. There is so much math in block play!

  11. Yes, I agree, children can be very creative in the block area and a lot of learning areas can be met in that one area alone. It is amazing.

  12. As an adult it is often hard to grasp that young children will learn through real objects, able to process that data, and with assistance be able to interpret the data collected.

  13. Sorting with blocks is a great way to teach analysis to children it also helps them when it comes to putting the blocks away when it is time to clean up

  14. A great way to share natural play based learning opportunities and observations with children and their families.

  15. While doing this activity, you can add vocabulary words such as cube and cylinder to enhance the lesson.

  16. I love how something as simple as playing with blocks is actually very complex! It is a great tool for teaching spatial concepts!

  17. I like how the children talk about the shapes, and then figure out how you can change some shapes to form another shape altogether. Pretty cool of the kids.

  18. Block play is such a popular activity for my students. They can create and also discuss shapes at the same tie

  19. During this activity you can use rich vocabulary and expand language. Also this is a great way to learn shapes and patterns.

  20. I find that the kids at the center that I work at like to put the blocks away by sorting. We have colored blocks so they sort by color and by the size and shape.

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