blocks: building childhood and culture

In her article, Blocks: Building Childhood and Culture, Amy F. Ogata looks at the enduring presence of blocks not just as a toy, but as a catalyst for children’s learning and growth. From the history of blocks to their variations over the years, many of the designs mentioned in the article can be experienced at the National Building Museum in PLAY.WORK.BUILD. The exhibition that opened in partnership with Rockwell Group has already seen over 22,000 attendees since its opening last November. 

The following is part of “Play Work Build: Essays on Constructive Toys” available in print at the museum gift shop in Washington, DC

The block is perhaps the most enigmatic of all children’s toys. A symmetrical shape with six flat sides, the block has long been the basic unit of both building and learning. It has endured as a signifier of childhood over more than three centuries, making it not just a severe and blank geometrical form but also a rich and culturally complex object.

Young children are often given blocks to stimulate cognitive understanding and to develop spatial skills. The history of the block is closely tied to this association between building and learning through play. In the late seventeenth century, the English philosopher John Locke advised covering a set of large dice with folio-sized printed letters to enhance the pleasure of learning the alphabet. Locke’s insight became a fundamental and long-lasting method of teaching. Early learning theories also recognized that the physical shape of the block itself, rather than a set of applied images, could enable a child’s sense of discovery. Friedrich Froebel, the early nineteenth-century German founder of the Kindergarten, included the cube along with the sphere and the cylinder as the most basic shapes of his pedagogical system.

 

ABC Picture Blocks, Milton Bradley Co., 1889
National Building Museum, Architectural Toy Collection

Trained in the study of crystals, Froebel used geometry in progressively complex arrangements to enhance physical manipulation, instill abstract thinking, and as a means of grasping the interconnectedness of man and nature. The solid wooden cube was one of the key elements in his system of “Gifts” and “Occupations” (he did not use the term “toys”), the teaching objects that a trained teacher presented sequentially to children to teach self-awareness and knowledge through manipulation.

Froebel’s unpainted wooden objects were devised in opposition to the colorful stone-like architectural blocks and forms, such as the Anker Steinbaukasten, that were popular in nineteenth-century middle-class German households. The plain wooden or unornamented block thus embodied a strongly pedagogical ideal in contrast to the fashionable amusement. And in this more utilitarian form, the block outlived Froebel’s rigid scheme to become a touchstone of twentieth-century early childhood education.

The block occupied a central position in American nursery school programs where it gained a reputation as the fundamental ingredient of open-ended experimental play.

Designs for Architectural Models No. 4 ½, Richters, c. 1909
National Building Museum, Architectural Toy Collection

In the early years of the twentieth century, Caroline Pratt developed a variety of wooden shapes she called Unit Blocks, a series of geometrical forms devised on a cohesive scale. Pratt put the unpainted wooden blocks she had made at the center of her teaching, first at a settlement house and then at a private nursery school in New York City. Along with other influential teachers of the time, she embraced the idea that free play with blocks gave children the materials to explore and test their ideas, and to develop an experimental outlook. The plainness and abstraction of the block, she and others argued, enabled children to enact and modify—on their own scale and on their own terms—the experiences of their daily lives. Teachers also stressed the productive social values of self-confidence, cooperation, and respect for the work of others that block building often required. Other block forms, such as hollow or open blocks that were lightweight but larger in scale pushed the possibilities of dramatic and imaginative play further.

In the mid-twentieth century, wooden blocks expanded beyond the rarified context of experimental schools to become ubiquitous equipment for early childhood education including some primary grades. Furthermore, manufacturers embraced the expressive ideal of the block to create a variety of forms for different ages. Young babies were given colorful cloth blocks that could be grasped, chewed, and tossed without harm. For older children, LEGO, the Danish building system based on interlocking plastic bricks, gave the activity of block-like building new appeal. Lightweight, portable, and infinitely expandable, LEGO bricks required deft manipulation and met the needs of young builders who were able to design and realize their fanciful visions. The legacy of block play that had begun in a much different era depended on the geometrical character of the block, but increasingly blocks were tied to the belief that open- ended play might produce a more thoughtful, cooperative, and curious person.

Today, the block persists as a motif of play for children and adults in the digital world. LEGO and MIT have developed software and hardware to create programmable bricks that animate creations assembled with LEGO. In the computer game Minecraft the basic square of the pixel is rendered as three- dimensional textured cubes of grass sod, diamond, lapis, wool, and many other materials to which one might apply a magical electrified material called “redstone” to engineer moving parts with the virtual blocks. The free creation of buildings, landscapes, machines, and even sound-scapes (with “note blocks”) extend
the same experimental culture of wooden blocks into the twenty-first century and well beyond the nursery school or public playground.

The flexibility of the block is part of its enduring appeal. Its sharp stackable forms are at once comfortingly familiar and infinitely abstract and mysterious. Although the block may seem to embody strict geometry, it is precisely this quality that enables expressive design. There is no doubt that the block is strongly romanticized as perhaps the most fundamental element of children’s play and a means to explore principles of balancing and building, as well as good citizenship and imagination. In this discourse, the block embodies the child’s own potential. Yet access to blocks is far from universal and even rarer is the time set aside to ponder, experiment, and design. It is worth remembering that the Dutch scholar Johan Huizinga theorized play as a key dimension of human culture. Playing with blocks may offer not only the production of culture on a small scale, but also the foundation for much larger contributions to our world.

 

Amy F. Ogata is Associate Professor at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. She is the author of a book on Belgian Art Nouveau and many articles on modern architecture and design. Her forthcoming book, Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America, published by the University of Minnesota Press will appear in Spring 2013.