Building the mind

Construction toys as developmental support
Reading time: 3 minutes


Construction toys are one of those enduring classics beloved of children all over the world. These games have evolved over the years, but the underlying benefits that they bring have remained the same. Let’s take a look at them!

A child notices a huge box in the room and catches a glimpse of brightly-coloured objects through the plastic casing. In the child's eyes, it is a precious treasure chest overflowing with treasure: building blocks. The child runs over to the box, overturns it, spilling the colourful contents noisily on the floor, and playtime begins...

Not much special about that, one might say. After all, it is typical scenario for children all over. But perhaps there is something special about this game.

How about looking at children and construction toys from a fresh point of view to find out what exactly is “at play” in terms of learning?


Working memory and spatial skills

The child is thinking about how to create a new building. Their gaze falls on a photo hanging on the wall which depicts a lakeside cottage. The child observes it carefully for a while, taking in the shapes, ratios, the surroundings... The image of a cottage is being created in the child's working memory, a kind of “mental blackboard” upon which pictures can be retained or changed at will. For instance, the child can change their viewpoint in order to imagine the hidden sides of the cottage. What is happening is called mental rotation. Then, the child chooses some blocks and begins to assemble them. Ideas begin to take shape thanks to precise movements of the fingers and the mind compares the provisional result with the mental model.


As the child is doing all of this, they are honing their basic cognitive functions (such as working memory and sustained attention), forming a foundation upon which more complex mental processes will rest.

Building also implies working with spaces and volumes, meaning the need to develop visuospatial abilities. Many research papers have discovered that children whose skills have been trained during play-sessions with construction toys scored higher in spatial intelligence and had more intense brain activity in the spatial-processing field as compared to control groups.


Divergent thinking and creativity

The cottage is finished. Now, the child wants to go on and build an amazing tower, but there is a problem. The building blocks have almost run out! Yet, the child doesn’t want to give up on the idea. However, to get around the lack of materials, it will be necessary to abandon the initial plan and think of something new. Otherwise, divergent creative thinking could come in handy. For a few minutes the child messes around and tries to work out how to “save on” bricks without damaging the cottage. The “saved” blocks can then be used to make the tower.

The example of the building-brick game illustrates how some issues can be solved with divergent creative thinking. We can find obstacles along our way that cannot be solved in one single manner, but rather have a variety of possible solutions. There are times when overcoming a hurdle is only possible by straying from the set path and embracing creative thinking.


Discovering the “laws of the world”

The child discovers to their amazement that the tower is wobbly and can’t stay up. Is it too tall to stand...or perhaps it just needs a wider base to keep its balance? A certain similarity with a tree comes to mind. The taller a tree and the larger the canopy, the more the roots have to be spread out and sturdy. So, the child picks out some blocks of the right length and puts them around the existing base to make it broader. Now the tower can stand on its own!

The child isn’t aware of it, but some valuable notions of architecture and engineering have been learnt during this play session! The same laws of physics that govern house or bridge design have been addressed, i.e., the importance of weight and centres of gravity. In the meantime, the small design mistakes have taught the child about frustration and other emotions that they will gradually learn to recognise and cope with.


Building blocks, phrases and relations

The child has finally finished their architectural feat and is eager to share their achievements with a friend. But it dawns on them that it will be tricky to describe it in words! They seek out the right words to describe every corner of the building, searching through their lexical memory; sometimes the words come out in the wrong order and they have to start from the beginning and construct the sentence properly. A friend comes around in the afternoon and the construction adventure inspires the two children to invent stories that comes alive in words.

Construction is a gateway for children to improve their language and storytelling skills. It also contributes to socialisation because children understand how important it is to ask for help, offer to help and cooperate. Last but not least, building together strengthens relationship skills, such as negotiation (“how shall we decide to use the missing pieces?”), reading others’ minds (“what is he/she thinking about?”) and conflict resolution.

Basically, bricks are an excellent way to build objects and give shape to ideas, but they are especially good for another more essential kind of building: that of creating the cognitive, psychomotor and social-emotional abilities that are needed for the individual development process.

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