Friday, May 20, 2005

Choosing Quality Toys: Blocks

If you're on a limited budget (like most of us) or simply searching for the right gift for a family with a baby, there are some toys that no child should be without. Like all quality children's toys, these items support learning, grow with the child, and are useful in many different ways. Their play value is simply enormous, and most children will play with them for years and years. Blocks are one fine example, and every family should make sure their baby has access to a quality set of building blocks.

Every child needs access to building toys. Young infants learn about basic shapes and sizes with blocks. There seems to be a strong internal drive to stack things (and knock them down again)! Even before the baby can walk, he or she will be interested in blocks. You'll probably want two different kinds: light weight ones that a very young child can use safely, and then a quality wooden set for building towers, castles and bridges. Blocks are very important to your child's development. They help nurture fine motor skills as children learn to make the little movements that allow them to stack and balance their blocks. Blocks also help kids to understand the physics and geometry of the world. The tower just won't stay up long if the blocks aren't lined up just so. Ideas about shape and size have their foundation in building with blocks, and blocks are wonderfully countable. Surprisingly, playing with blocks can also help your child get ready to read. Blocks encourage the development of spatial concepts, such as over, under, beside and between. These ideas are also important in the early grades of school, when kids are discovering the relationships between letter order and phonics, and when they are given directions such as "Draw a line under the house." Blocks are so important that every child should have access to them.

Blocks also will grow with your child. Your baby will want to hold them, feel them, mouth them, and squeeze them. Your toddler will haul them around in baby carriages or bags or boxes and put them in and out of containers. Don't be surprised when your little one presents you with a block and waits for you to say "Thank you!" Then the next part of the game is to take the block away again. Your baby is learning to understand the concepts of "mine'" and "yours"! Somewhere around the twelve-month mark, your baby will begin to try to stack the blocks into a tower. One of the developmental milestones, in fact, is the ability to stack three or more blocks. My daughter loved to see adults stack the blocks, then have the chance to knock them down. She was so gleeful about the game, that we started praising her for her astounding demolition techniques. It wasn't long before she would bring her blocks to her father and demand, "Build!" When the tower was done, she would knock it over with a wonderful roundhouse slap and yell, "Technique!" It's one of those wonderful childhood memories, now, because at age 18 she'd never dream of knocking over someone else's block tower. But at fourteen months, the game gave her a sense of power and control that little people just adore.

Your preschooler will play with blocks, too. Imagination is beginning to develop at this age, and you will see the blocks being used as a whole host of other things when your child understands symbolism and representation. A block in a baby stroller might be a baby. One tied to a string becomes a dog on a leash. A block pushed across the floor with appropriate sound effects makes a great car. It's a special time when your little one starts to do things like this, because it means that his or her mind is developing rapidly and imagination is growing.

As your child matures and his or her motor skills and knowledge of physics progress, you will find the little one building elaborate construction projects. Castles, skyscrapers, houses, caves, roads, bridges, and zoos will all be constructed out of the blocks. Your little one will discover that other toys can be mixed into the set to create pretend scenarios, and the block zoo will be peopled with animals from the plastic Noah's Ark set. Again, this is a stupendous milestone, because it means that your baby understands pretend play and is using his or her mind to create elaborate and intricate stories. These are the basis for later written expression skills and will serve your child well in school. Encourage it! Get down with the youngsters and play along, but be sure not to direct the play too much. It's really important for kids to have opportunities to tell the grown-ups what to do.

There are lots of kinds of blocks to choose from, but I think my children's favorite has always been the large set of plain wooden blocks that the oldest received as a baby present. You know the kind: over a hundred shaped blocks sanded smooth. There are cylindars, rectangles, squares, half circles, and triangles of different shapes and sizes. If you are thinking of purchasing blocks like this, the best bet are the sanded, lightly-varnished kinds. The brightly-painted ones tend to chip and look a bit ragged after a while. Be sure whatever finish has been used is safe for putting in the mouth, and that the wood is sturdy enough to stand up to banging around and occasional chewing. You'll want a sturdy container for the blocks, too. A box on wheels worked well for our family. Plastic containers tended to break pretty quickly and cloth containers didn't hold their contents too well.

I know that a good set of blocks can be somewhat pricey, but try to get one with over a hundred pieces. As your child grows, you want the block set to keep up with his or her needs and desires. Blocks are such an important part of your growing child's development that every kid should have a set.

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