Sami has been a classroom teacher, founded and directed progressive schools and now homeschools her two children. She is passionate about block play in her homeschool curriculum and shares the joy and the educational benefits of block play with her audience. She loves to help educate others about what meaningful block play is, how they can support it, and how to uncover all of the learning that’s happening through play!
HABA: You love blocks! Was there something that sparked your love of block play from your own childhood? Or did your love of blocks grow when you had children of your own?
Sami: My love of blocks truly started when I was an undergraduate student studying child development. I attended a progressive education liberal arts college which housed a truly incredible progressive education early childhood center and I got to spend a great amount of time observing there. That’s where I started to learn about the amazing benefits of block play! I ended up staying to get my Masters of Science in Childhood and Early Childhood Education and over my years training and working in progressive education schools in NYC and Vermont I was able to learn so much about block play in the field. I got to see 2 and 3 year olds have their first experiences with block play and was able to work with 3rd graders to build entire 3D maps and models of real neighborhoods and buildings with blocks. Once you see truly meaningful block play in action it's pretty hard not to fall in love!
HABA: How do you encourage children to start using blocks in their play?
Sami: I think the real key in encouraging block play is for the adults to prioritize it for the children. The things we give space to in our homes and classrooms hold value and those choices communicate to the children who use our spaces about what's important. If we want our children to play with blocks we have to show them that blocks are important by giving them a beautiful and accessible home. The most meaningful block play happens when the child can easily see and access their blocks. I recommend open shelving in a central space where you can sort blocks by shape and size. If your blocks are shoved in a basket hidden in a corner it shouldn't be surprising that they're not getting much play!
HABA: How do you encourage children to extend block play into longer sessions?
Sami: I always find that dramatic block play can go on and on once kids get going! Try adding simple accessories to the space to spark imaginative play like a favorite stuffed animal, doll house people and accessories, cars & trucks, or even characters from a favorite book or movie! You can give super simple prompts to help your child get started and watch as their play takes off! A favorite dramatic block play prompt of mine is to ask the child to build a "home" for a favorite toy. The key here is to use the word "home" instead of something more specific like "house" or "castle" or "garage" so the child is free to create without any preconceived expectations.
HABA: A whole shelf full of blocks seems like it could end in a big mess, do you have tips for parents on how to keep their blocks accessible and organized?
Sami: Blocks need a shelf and clear organization. In my experience (and based on feedback from other block loving families and educators who have tried my tips) organizing blocks by shape and size on an open shelf not only facilitates more meaningful play because children can easily find the blocks they need to carry out their big ideas and plans, but it also makes clean up easier. Kids learn where each shape lives and are able to clean up fairly independently! If you like, you can even add labels to the shelves to help remind children where different shapes belong. I also find the messes are way smaller when blocks are so accessibly organized- there's no need to dump everything out in search of a specific piece when you can see everything on the shelf!
HABA: When buying blocks for your children or as gifts, what do you look for or what makes a perfect first block set?
Sami: There are tons of options when it comes to building a block collection and my greatest tip for choosing a first set is to choose one that is mathematically designed and based on a standard "unit". Mathematically designed blocks are usually based on a main "unit" shape that dominates the set (usually a rectangle of some kind) while the other shapes are multiples and fractions of the "unit". This kind of block set allows children to build with them universally. If they run out of one shape it can be built with the others. If they want to build tall structures, it’s easy to balance blocks on top of one another because they are a standard height. Choosing mathematically designed blocks gives the child endless opportunities for learning through play. Making sure you choose a block set that follows standard dimensions is important if you hope to build a collection over time. If you choose a standardized block set you can add different sets to your collection over time and they'll work seamlessly together! For example the HABA Clever Up system has a base unit of 4cm and so does the Grimm's Large Stepped Pyramid so building with these sets together is a breeze and so fun! Another option is traditional unit blocks which are based on a standard 5.5 x 2.75 x 1.375 inch rectangle and are available from many companies large and small (they're also my personal favorite blocks to use with children).
HABA: Anything else you would like to share with us about your work with blocks?
Sami: Teaching grown ups about block play over the past couple of years has been such a rewarding experience. I never knew I'd have the chance to help so many families and educators all over the world get started with block play both at home and in their classrooms! So I guess I'd like to say that if block play is new to you, you won't regret learning more about it and jumping in! Play is the work of the child and our job as parents and educators is to support and facilitate that play as much as possible. We need to give them tools to do their important work (play!) and blocks are one of the most powerful, open-ended tools you can provide! Prepare an environment that supports independent play with blocks, organize the shelf, add a few accessories, maybe throw a prompt out there, and then walk away. Come back and be amazed by what children do with a truly open ended material like blocks! And if you need tips, inspiration, or support come say hi over at everydaywitheandj.com or @everydaywitheandj on instagram!