3 Ideas for your Block Play Area

Unit blocks are an important staple in most early learning rooms. They are invaluable for supporting every area of the curriculum.

Here are 3 ideas to extend and complement your block play area:

Windows & Doors are an exciting new option to add detail to house structures. An ideal addition to a structure, windows and doors are a fun challenge to build with, as children learn how to make space for their window or door and continue to build for strength.

The five piece set includes 4 windows and 1 door and is available as a single set or double. They are scaled for use with standard unit blocks and recommended ages are 3+. The window and door panels are permanently attached.

Rainbow Blocks are an adventure in colour and light. Indulge children’s appetite for exploration by combining blocks to form new colours, or stack the blocks in a different order each time to form new and exciting shapes.

These Rainbow Blocks are standard unit block measurements and include 8 squares, 4 1/2 circles, 2 large triangles, 6 small triangles and 10 rectangles. The rectangle measures 7cm x 3.5cm x 14cm (2-3/4″ x 1-3/8″ x 5-1/2″). and recommended ages are 2+.

Organize your unit blocks easily with this storage unit designed just for that. The Block Shelf divides blocks according to size and shape. We often forget that choosing the correct block for its purpose and then sorting and returning blocks to their home spot, is an important part of the learning process. Having a permanent home for each type of block in your Unit Block Set makes this process much easier.

The Block Shelf accommodates a 150 piece block set and comes fully assembled with a 15 year warranty.

Happy Block Playing!

Arches and Tunnels

The package containing our Arches & Tunnels arrived on a Friday afternoon.  Initially I planned to wait until Monday before introducing the children to the new item to review but there were only a few children here so I decided it that it would be a fun way to end the week.  After the children got up from a nap, I let them open the package.

I didn’t tell them what it was – although ‘arches’ is an accurate description of the shape of these blocks, I felt ‘tunnels’ might influence the children’s use of the blocks.  I wanted them to use their imagination and not have the product name limit what they chose to create. However, the first thing they did was make “the longest tunnel ever” and of course they used the packaging to ‘decorate’ it too;

I confiscated the box – I know they would have loved to play with it too but I needed it for storage!

I was impressed by the quality of these arches – they are sturdy and smooth with no sharp corners or edges.  I really wanted the children to see these blocks as more than just tunnels but I resisted the urge to make any suggestions or direct their play.  They eventually started to make other things like ‘garages’ – most of which were really just shorter tunnels but some had a different design (the packaging was used as the roof on the circular garages).

They played exclusively with the arches for the remainder of the afternoon.  By home time they had begun to make ‘flowers’.

The following week everyone got a chance to use the arches – the children in my current group range in age from 18 months to eight years old.  The older ones really showed off their engineering and design skills.

The preschoolers’ garages evolved to be much more elaborate than their initial circle or short tunnel;

The school-age children then developed the ‘roller coaster’ game which soon became the preschooler’s favourite game. The goal of this game was to move the arch in such a way that the vehicle would roll all the way from one end to the other without falling off.

Of course, some of the children suggested bonus points if you could hold it high in the air and rock it really, really fast while running in circles. *sigh* I much preferred ‘calm and gentle’ in our small, indoor, mixed use space but I’ll admit some of them could demonstrate quite impressive skills even if it caused me a bit of angst.

Most interestingly it was one of the preschoolers who discovered they could make ‘numbers’ with the arches – wow!

After several weeks of play, none of this group of children ever lost interest in playing with the Arches & Tunnels.  However, there were a few things that I think would improve the play value – at least for me and this group.  We definitely could use many more blocks. Even if only one child was using them they would run out of pieces before they completed their construction projects.  There were many disputes if two or more wanted to build at the same time.

Yet, having many more blocks of this size would have been an issue in our small space.  Sure the large size is nice when you want to drive a truck through a tunnel but honestly, after that first afternoon, no one ever made another tunnel.  Construction with curved blocks offered so many more design opportunities than are possible with straight, square or rectangle blocks.  It was fascinating to watch their creativity flourish. I wish we had hundreds of small arches to build with.  I even tried boiling some tongue depressors and shaping the softened wood around a can.  Sadly, it is not easy and it would take me years worth of time I don’t have in order to make enough.

So, until someone makes us a bigger set of small arches we will have to keep taking turns using our big arches to build small projects.

Written by Cheryl, an experienced ECE II who runs her own daycare (Cheryl’s Child Care).

Gears Gears Gears Super Set

In addition to working with young children, I also do arts and crafts with the After School Program (ages 5-12) at Earl Grey Community Centre in Winnipeg. Sometimes that extends into other activities like tinker trays, and recently it extended into the toy world with the Gears Gears Gears Super Set.

I divided the bucket into 3 medium sized bins and put them out on a big long table and it wasn’t long before kids were swarming like bees around a jar of honey. They figured out how to put the gears together more quickly than I did, which I think is a characteristic of great toys; it appeals to the Kid Brain. And then they were completely absorbed in putting together sculptures. Some wanted to see how tall they could make it before it fell over, some were wide, and some used only a handful of pieces. Then there was an audible gasp from one of the kids as their sculpture “came to life” and they discovered how to make the gears move, and then how to add more layers of gears and get them all moving at the same time. It’s an amazing activity for problem-solving too, in more ways than I expected.

The pieces quickly got gobbled up and within about 20-30 minutes the bins were empty. Then, without any hint or suggestion from anyone else, they started combining their structures. They worked at making them fit together and then adjusted the gears so they’d all turn at the same time. When they teamed up it became a different activity; one where they were problem-solving together and sharing ideas for how to make the structure bigger and/or better.

There did come a point when one or two structures seemed to have most of the gears so I said they had to share the pieces, but they could choose which parts of their sculpture to share. And they did. Pretty soon I just stood back and watched as they started talking to each other when they needed something. Then they took it one step further by bartering for pieces; “I’ll give you an orange connector if I can have the crank”.

Then I asked them what their factory or machine was making (a better question would have been “What are you making with the gears?”), but it added another level of creative play. One machine made banana ice cream, another an elevator, a turtle, and one made “Tim Horton’s secret ingredients!” At some point a couple of small cars appeared and a snow cone machine became a “car washing machine”, not a car wash, but a car washing machine.

And there are probably lots of other ways to extend the play with this set of gears, including my favourite activity, arts and crafts. The gears would make great stamps dipped in paint like Mary Catherine did at Fun-A-Day, or could be traced with thin markers or pencil crayons and then coloured.

These gears are also tough. Once or twice pieces popped into the air and onto the floor when an inventor was trying to make it fit somewhere it didn’t want to be. They used their fists to pound pieces together, but nothing broke. I expected to see tiny stems snapped off, or cracked connector pieces, but these gears are extremely sturdy. They survived 90 minutes of intense play from about 12-15 kids by the end of the first day, and many more sessions since.

The Gears Gears Gears Super Set includes 66 colourful gears, 36 square pillars, 31 six-way axles, 8 pillar connectors, 8 interlocking bases, and 2 crank handles, all contained in a plastic tub for storing in, and an activity guide. There are lots of small pieces – which makes it a great activity for fine motor skills – but use caution if there are younger children around who still put things in their mouth. (The age recommendation is 3 and up.) It’s perfect for one to three children, but we did end up getting an additional set for the After School Program. Whether you’re buying it for one kid or many, it’s worth it for the skill development and ‘playability’ you get out of this unique and creative building toy.

Written by Alison McLean, educator and craft creator at Earl Grey Community Centre. You can follow Alison on Facebook: Alison’s Crafts To Go and on Instagram: @alisonsmagicalcrafts.

Building Imagination with Bricks

These gorgeous transparent bricks have been played with lots by Rose. She loves pouring them onto the light table and organizing them to her fancy. Daisy has not been so into these gorgeous blocks so I set her a challenge.

These little people are outside and need shelter. It is windy and cold (not hard to imagine, considering where we live) and they need four walls and a roof to keep out the cold.

This was all Daisy needed to inspire some building. I had never thought about it much but block building is not something either of my children chose to do unless I lift the blocks out and model some building. I sat down and played alongside them.

Rose chose to play for a few minutes then decided to bug her sister by sitting on her chair. She tends to wander around then come back to the task at hand. I counted and she would last 3 to 4 minutes, play elsewhere for 3 to 4 minutes and then return to the light table.

She returned 3 times before losing interest.

Daisy continued to build, ignoring Rose’s antics.

The roof was quite a discussion. After a little questioning:

“Does the roof need to be bigger than the building?”

“What do you think we could use?”

“Can you see anything flat and the same size as the base?”

I gave up and suggested she use another prism base. This idea was met with a look of frustration and a sigh.

“No mama that would be too slippery and the wind will blow it off”.

So having been told, I left her to search for a roof. When I came back five minutes later she proudly announced she had finished and her people were warm.