As much as I hope to be a model blogger and post like clockwork, this summer has been a blur: swimming, caterpillars/butterflies, boxes, books… Most notably, I’ve been working to produce the inaugural catalog for blue manatee press, publisher of my Baby Unplugged books, the latest 4 arriving en masse earlier this week: Book, Ball, Beach, and Box (find them here and/or at your favorite independent bookstore). Interesting how so many unplugged classics begin with B, including Blanket and the topic of this post.
I’m writing from the Suncoast Pediatric Conference in Sarasota, FL, ironic since I was greeted by a monsoon. I’m here for a continuing medical education intensive/nerd-fest, chosen for a combination of setting and keynote speaker: Victor Strasburger, MD, an authority on children and media. Combine that with updates on ADHD, newborn screening, and recreational water illness, and I’m in.
Being a diligent pediatrician (if delinquent blogger), I did some reading on the way down, multitasking (irony again) between James Steyer’s new book, Talking Back to Facebook (recommended) and some articles on my favorite subject, including a classic that I’d like to share.
Blocks: the word resonates with happy memories and woody, gravity-defying, visionary ethos. It also rhymes with “talks” (read on). I grew up a huge block fan. I vividly recall spending hours in my bedroom creating all manner of forts, castles, and towers with my utilitarian wooden set, stacking them high until they succumbed to gravity and came crashing down. Ditto Lincoln Logs and the, the…big cabins I’d build, which is all that you can build with Lincoln Logs. I’m also pretty sure I had one of the world’s first and plainest sets of Legos, at the time a vast and amazing invention, albeit bit esoteric and not as fun to crash. Our oldest daughter took my Lego ambivalence to the next level, consumed for days on end with freestyle creations. Our middle daughter was more of a alphabet block and dollhouse lady. Our youngest likes all of the above, plus rocks.
Anyway. Blocks are cool, no matter how determined app designers are to make them lame.
Which makes the study I read extra cool, affirming the Baby Unplugged mantra that old-school is the best school there is for little ones.
Recall that a child’s brain triples in size in the first two years. During this critical span, children are absorbing literally a world of multi-sensory stimulus – sights, sounds, touch, taste, blankets. This is when consistent human interaction is critical, with activities that facilitate such interaction (e.g. blocks) tending to promote development, ones that don’t (e.g. smart baby videos), impairing it. The Baby Einstein Color Blocks recalled for violating lead paint standards deserve their own category.
In addition to cuddling, snuggling, and making goo-goo sounds, hands-on, creative/imaginary play is how it’s done. Play promotes language, attention & impulse control, memory, experimentation, and pretty much everything good that at tripling-in-size brain could want. It’s how children create their own internal models of the world, and thus begin to figure it out.
Blocks are among our most iconic, utterly unplugged inventions. They ace the great toy test – at least 90% child, 10% toy – so often inverted by e-media designers, with innumerable social, creative, cognitive (geometry, physics…), and language benefits. A selective timeline, courtesy of pluggy Wikipedia:
- 1963: the first known reference to alphabet blocks, by John Locke (rhymes with block!): ”…dice and playthings, with letters on them to teach children the alphabet by playing would make learning to read a more enjoyable experience.”
- 1820 blocks first produced on a large scale
- 1949: Legos!
- 2003: blocks inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.
As for the study: It’s a good one, by Dimitri A. Christakis, M.D., M.P.H, of the University of Washington, Seattle and the Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute (also co-author of the famous “Baby Einstein study”), published in 2007 in the journal Pediatrics. 175 children, age 1.5 to 2.5 years, were divided into equal groups. One group was given sets of building blocks and newsletters with suggestions for how parents/children might play with them. The other group, sadly, did not receive any blocks…until after the study, a reward for keeping an activity diary. After 6 months, both sets of parents completed a survey, including assessments of their children’s language and attention.
Not surprisingly, most families receiving the blocks played with them (59 percent), compared with only 13 percent of the no blocks…yet controls. What was surprising was that the block-receiving families reported significantly higher language scores – 15 percent higher, in fact, which is a lot. Possible reasons cited were greater parent-child engagement and interaction via creative play, and block playtime replacing passive electronic media, a known inhibitor of language development in young children.
Whatever the mechanism, old-school blocks aced the test.
Which makes me wonder. Even though I’m a grownup, maybe my education would be better served by hunkering down to play with blocks instead of reading and lectures.