About play

Research on play


People need to play. Playing is the brain’s way of learning things. It is an essential part of children’s development; it’s their way of discovering things around them while at the same time expressing how they feel. Plato said (among other things), “you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”  You can determine the character of a child while watching him or her playing. As they grow, children need ample time to be more playfully investigative and creative in their own ways.

Open-ended play is creative thinking play and a powerful learning experience where a child is limited by his or her own imagination. Albert Einstein said (also, among other, possibly more important things), “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” One can discover kids’ talents and skills based on open-ended materials that require no expectations, no specific goals or problems to be solved, no rules to follow and no pressure. Moreover, Carver (2008) said that “To a child, a piece of cloth is not just a length of fabric. It is a princess’s veil, a knight’s cape, a mermaid’s tail, a pirate’s sash, or a fairy’s wings. The simplest items can inspire amazing flights of imagination.” Open-ended play allows children to create what they want, as opposed to following strict directions, letting their creativity flow, and their problem-solving skills to increase. Evelyn Petersen, author of “Creating with Open Ended Materials”,  defines open ended materials as those which young children can use for creative play in any way they like, within their parents’ guidelines for safety and clean up. She added that open-ended materials are like open-ended questions. There is no “one” answer or one “right” way to use them. Any child can enjoy, and be successful in creating with crayons, markers, clays, paper and glue, finger-paint and paint. Using open-ended materials nurtures both the child’s creativity and self esteem. Blocks, dress ups, props, recycled items, and natural materials like seeds, earth, sand, and water are also open ended materials which can be used in many ways.

According to Bruce, T., McNair, L. & Siencyn (2008), open-ended play is intrinsic to childhood; children have an impetus to explore and create. When free to experiment with the simplest materials, they find ways to express and develop their thoughts in imaginative play. While Bekker and Sturm (2008) define it as a form of play where there are no predefined game goals and/or rules, where players can create their own games with their own goals and rules by allocating meaning to interaction behavior of the objects. The goal of open-ended play is to allow children to explore and learn by creating their own game rules, by providing simple design with many play opportunities (Hopma, E., Bekker, T., & Sturm, J. 2009). Open-ended play is also known as free-flow play (Bruce 1991). In this kind of play, children will have no fear of doing it wrong since there is actually no correct method or technique of playing it. Claire Lerner, Director of Parenting Resources for the children’s advocacy group Zero to Three, said that “The reason those toys are so good for play and learning is that they require a lot more thinking and creativity on the part of the child. Other toys might teach cause and effect, but with open-ended play, ideally, they are using all their domains of development.

Importance and Benefits

Children need plenty of opportunities for creative play and creative thinking. All they need to be fully creative and imaginative is the freedom to commit themselves completely to the effort and make whatever activity they are doing their own. Creative activities like open-ended play help acknowledge and discover children’s uniqueness and diversity as well as foster mental growth in children to try out new ideas and new ways of thinking and problem-solving.

Another name for open-ended play is block play. Providing a child with opportunities for block play is a great way of building and developing skills such as motor skills and hand-eye coordination, spatial skills, creative problem-solving skills, social skills, and language skills. This kind of play can also help the children enhance their self-confidence by socializing with others.  Karen Stephens, Director of Illinois State University Child Care Center and instructor in child development for the ISU Family and Consumer Sciences Department, made a list of what children learn during their block play experience:

• to be creative and put abstract ideas into action
• to make logical connections
• to apply previously learned knowledge to problem solve and be inventive to appreciate and respect others’ ideas;
• to work cooperatively;
• to capitalize and build upon each other’s work;
• to be proud of industrious accomplishment; and
• to enjoy the process of learning.

Blocks help children learn many school-related subjects such as math and science and discover their talents and skills in communication, reading, writing, decision-making and even socializing with other kids. Their emotional and physical capabilities will also be enhanced. Through playing with blocks, children develop their muscles and their minds, and they learn ways of getting along with each other. The following summarizes the concepts, traits and skills that children learn through block play:

Math and Science

Through block play, children learn shapes, colors and sizes. Young children may also develop their math skills through counting, matching, grouping, adding and subtracting blocks during their play. Likewise, science skills can also be built up such as gravity, balance, stability and cause and effect. Moreover, when children select blocks to fit in a space, they become comfortable with trial and error as they test out their experimental ideas through block building.

Reading and Writing

Children can improve reading and writing skills by making signs for their buildings and drawing pictures of their favorite block building before applying it into actions. Likewise, their labelling skills, vocabulary, recalling stories, creating/dictating stories, and sentence structure will be developed because they are playing blocks with other kids.

Creativity and Problem Solving

Creativity and problem solving skills can be enhanced through block play. Children develop the ability to come up with their own ideas. They learn how to decide what exactly they want to make out of the blocks. Block play allows children to think and find solutions to problems and experiment or explore things by creating patterns. Their logical reasoning and divergent thinking are enriched, and they learn how to compare, classify, symbolize, represent and put the blocks in a sequence.

Social and Emotional

Children’s self-confidence in making decisions and choices and self-expression are enhanced. Through blocks, children will learn how to get along with others and to feel good about working together. This is also a perfect way for children to build strong self-esteem. Children improve their competence, success, autonomy, initiative, equality, cooperation, negotiation, compromise, responsibility, leadership, social studies concepts and emotional release with the help of block play.


Children develop both large and fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination when they play with blocks. Their physical and mental strength are being tested as they move the blocks from one place to the other. By carefully building the block structures, children improve their balance, control, and spatial awareness. Coordination, visual perception, motor development, spatial orientation, and fine motor coordination are exercised  in this kind of play.

Block Play for Different Ages

Children’s familiarity with the blocks as they use them repeatedly leads to experimentation and the use of blocks in new ways and in different contexts helps them become innovative. How a child will play with blocks will change as the child’s abilities, attitudes and imagination grow and develop. As they gain knowledge over their environment through block play, they develop a strong sense of accomplishment that fosters self-esteem.

A study made by Dimitri Christakis, M.D., a Seattle Children’s Hospital paediatrician, found that children who played open-ended materials just 20 minutes a day scored 15 percent higher on language development tests and were 80 percent less likely to watch television. According to Dr. Christakis, the ideal age for block play is six (6) months to two (2) years, but  could also be played at any age.

Birth through 12 months

Infants and young toddlers enjoy touching, exploring and experimenting the texture of the blocks. During this stage, they react to their environment mainly through involuntary system of reflexes such as sucking, blinking, rooting, or grasping an object placed in their hand. These inborn reflexes provide the babies with the ability to survive, adapt to their environment and learn things about their world. Nowadays, toys for this age bracket are made of plastics. Through block play, the babies use all their senses to receive information about the world and develop attachments to important people.

12 through 24 months

Toddlers enjoy carrying blocks around, piling up together and moving them around. At this age, children learn about their environment through exploration with the blocks. How they feel to carry and move those blocks, how heavy they are, and how many can be carried at once are the only few things that a child can realize while playing open-ended materials. Actually, building block towers and knocking them down is a game that all babies and toddlers love.

2 through 3 years old

During this stage, children start to recognize shapes, colors and textures. Moreover, with practice and guidance from their parents, they can remember which is which from the blocks. They also begin piling the blocks and organizing them on one place. They learn how to make buildings, houses and roads from the blocks. They also begin to dramatize some fantasy play.

3 and 4 years old

At this stage, children like to experiment and explore things by making some enclosures, bridges, and patterns with the blocks. They also use these structures and at the same time their other toys like dolls, transportation toys like cars and airplanes and other props for some dramatic play. Through dramatic play, children little by little learn to take each other’s needs into account, and appreciate different values and perspectives.

Ages 5 and Up

This type of age groups refers to the early school-age children suchas kindergarteners and preschoolers in daycare. Block play encourages cooperation, sharing, compromise, creativity, organization and teamwork especially when children engage in block play together. They create buildings, cities, and landscapes that they know from everyday life. Children at this stage need a variety of block shapes so they can make their buildings and houses more decorative.

Block Play Compared to Other Toys

Open-ended or block play may not be as flashy as the battery-powered robots, dolls, and other electronic games, but these block toys are considered one of the best developmental toys that money can buy. In one experiment made by Pepler and Ross (1981), they presented pre-schoolers with two types of play materials. Some children were given puzzle pieces for convergent play. Psychologists defined convergent problems as problems having only one correct solution. Other children were given toy blocks or open-ended materials for divergent play. Divergent problems are problems which can be solved in multiple ways. These children were given ample time to play and then tested on their ability to solve problems. The results concluded that children who played with blocks performed better on divergent problems. They also showed more creativity in their attempts to solve the problems (Pepler and Ross 1981).

We live in a world dominated by correct answers, test scores, point systems,  games with levels, and other quantifiable outcomes. But in a recent study conducted by Julia Steiny (2009), it concluded that real play is open ended, with no right answers. Evidence shows that real and successful leaders are creative, out-of-the-box problem solvers, persistent and confident in their abilities to interact with each other. Real play has neither extrinsic goals nor rewards, which is what open-ended materials such as block play offer to children. Unlike video games which have predetermined paths and choices pushing to a single outcome such as completing the puzzle or winning the game, block play allows mental and physical abilities to move and act independently from any direction or goals. Moreover, according to Steiny (2009), much of the multibillion-dollar toy industry is linked to recent films, so the doll, robot or accessory fits into a prefabricated story. Television based toys and coloring books similarly fit into a preexisting storyline, depriving kids of the opportunity to come up with stories of their own.


Open-ended materials or blocks have an enormous potential to educate and entertain children of different ages. In using them, parents and teachers should understand their specific roles in influencing the children’s emotional, cognitive and psychomotor domains as they go through playing blocks. Based from the evidence  gathered by researchers across the globe, block play is now believed and confirmed to make significant contributions to children’s mental, physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. Even their values and attitudes toward others and how they cooperate and lead are developed through block play. As children grow to know more of the world and as their cognitive structures mature and develop, we expect to see changes in their behavior and have a better understanding of their thinking and feeling processes. Block play is a powerful educational tool in making the child’s learning process effective and at the same time fun to play with.

References and further reading

Alexander, N.P. All About Unit Block Play.

Bekker, T. Hopma, E., Sturm, J. (n.d.). Creating opportunities for play: the influence of multimodal feedback on open-ended play

Bekker, M.M. and Sturm, J. (2009). Stimulating Physical and Social Activity through Open-Ended Play.

Bruce, T., McNair, L., Siencyn, S.W. (2008). I made a unicorn! Open-ended play with blocks and simple materials.

Carver, R. (2008). Encouraging Imaginative, Open-Ended Play with Themed Costumes, Props, Toys, and Books.

Dewar, G. (2008-2009). Toy blocks (and other construction toys): A guide for the science-minded parent.

Donahue, J. (2007, December 31). Toys that Encourage Creative Play. 

Hopma, E., Bekker, T., & Sturm, J. (2009). Interactive Play Objects: the influence of multimodal output on open-ended play.

Is Block Play really Important? (n.d.).

Lytle, D. (2003). Play and educational theory and practice.

Milnes, S. (n.d.). Web-based Learning Units Block Play Builds Learning Skills 

Newman, B.M., Newman, P. R. Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach. Retrieved from

Nijholt, A., Reidsma, D., Hondorp, H. (2009). Intelligent Technologies for Interactive Entertainment: Third International.

Provenzo, E. F., Brett, A. (1983). The complete block book.

Steiny, J. (2009). R.I. Children’s Museum tries to Encourage Open-ended Play. The Providence Journal.

Stephens, K. (2002). There’s More to Children’s Block Play Than Meets the Eye

Ten open-ended play ideas. (n.d.).  

Wellhousen, K., Kieff, J.E. A Constructivist Approach to Block Play in Early Childhood

Wood, S. (n.d.). The Benefits of Block Play.