For children with autism, using building blocks in play is a beneficial activity for their physical, cognitive and social-emotional development.
Building with blocks is a favorite pastime for many young children. They’re available in different sizes, colors, textures, and types, making it suitable for children of any age and ability level! Building blocks can also be used in a variety of educational and fun ways. This article explains how to use blocks to support gross and fine motor skills, cognitive development, social and emotional development, and math and science skills. Blocks also provide a good avenue for helping children learn to play and play while learning!
Supporting Gross and Fine Motor Skills
Through their own exploration of blocks, children develop fine and gross motor skills. As they manipulate the blocks during play, their hand/eye coordination strengthens. Their visual and spatial awareness flourishes as they discover how the different shapes and sizes of blocks relate to one another. And of course, at the end of play, cleaning up all of the blocks can require some strong hands and arms!
Supporting Cognitive Development
Building with blocks supports children’s cognitive development. As children build, they are subconsciously creating goals for what they’d like to accomplish during play, whether it’s building something specific, developing a pattern, or exploration of how the blocks fit together. Through this, children are gaining specific mathematics skills, enhancing their understanding of geometry, size, classification, symmetry, patterns, and balance. This play also lends itself to engineering skills, such as creative planning, trial and error, and problem solving. While building blocks, children are constantly responding to how the blocks work together and adapting their play. (For more support helping your child develop cognitive skills using blocks, download the Language Builder Blocks App. This free App provides kids with hundreds of block structure images and allows children to create and add their own structures to completely customize the experience. The child-friendly block-building timer adds a fun challenge and built-in reward as you save best times to a personalized gallery.)
Supporting Social and Emotional Development
Playing with building blocks also supports children’s social and emotional development. Especially when children play together, they are practicing collaboration skills such as teamwork, communication, negotiation, respect, and turn taking. These types of social emotional skills can look different depending on your child’s abilities – even modest gains in collaborative skills can come from helping your child or student collaborate with others. Playing without a specific goal while using building blocks can also support an increased attention span. Individually, as children build blocks with peers, they are taking initiative and autonomy in their own self-expression and creativity, which leads to confidence.
Supporting Math and Science Skills
Through playing with blocks, children develop their number skills. Through touch and sight, children are able to recognize how blocks fit together, stack with one another, and create patterns. As children learn to build blocks and manipulate structures, they are also exploring numbers, symmetry, patterns, and balance. Blocks allow children to learn one-to-one correspondence and the value of multiple objects together. They instinctively compare sizes, lengths, and amounts of building blocks. While playing, children also learn about gravity, weight, stability, balance, and cause and effect concepts. These skills build a foundation for later number skills, mathematical skills, and science skills that children will develop.
Beginning to Play With Building Blocks
Using building blocks is a way for children to develop physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally. Specifically, helping your child imitate basic block structures supports development in these areas. Through direct block building imitation practice, children can copy and create a basic block structure. Children will be able to imitate the block structure from one made in front of them or by using an image. This lesson below, used in our Language Builder:
Academic Readiness Intervention System (ARIS), Lesson 63 - “Block Imitation” outlines how to support your child:
Excerpt from Lesson 63 (ARIS): Block Imitation
Using the Language Builder Blocks, pull all blocks that have at least one identical match (so for every block you pull from the collection it has a matching block). It is important the blocks match so the child can easily recreate the structure.
1. Sit facing the child. Make sure you have their attention.
2. Place blocks on the table. Build a simple structure with the blocks.
If the child is new to block imitation or struggling, begin with two-block structures. If available, using color-coded blocks can create an additional visual support.
3. Place the corresponding blocks on the table, scattered in front of the child.
4. Give the instruction, “Build this” pointing to the structure you just built.
5. Allow the student to pause between each block to allow time for processing before prompting.
6. Prompt if necessary.
7. Reinforce the child as appropriate when the structure is completed by saying “good job” or giving a small reward to the child.
8. Create new structures for the child to imitate as appropriate. Increase the number of blocks in the structure one at a time.
If the child is new to building with blocks, they may require additional support. While they are learning, introducing only one block at a time can help scaffold independence. You may prompt them by pointing to the blocks and repeating instructions. Model holding the blocks and if needed, practice holding and placing the blocks with your hands over theirs.
Once your child has mastered imitation block building, the activity can be generalized to having the child practice block building in more natural settings such as recess or free time. Continued communication about what the child is building, the shapes and colors they are using, and narration of how they are building are language skills that can be supported through this activity.
As your child continues to make progress in imitation of block structures, you can continue to create more complex structures, focusing on the colors and shapes of the blocks you are using, allow the child to create their own structures, and incorporate your creations into imaginative play!
This article is based on the following research: