Blocks are the anti-app

After one preschooler tired of building a stage, others turned it into an obstacle course.  Photo: Eric Westervelt, NPR

Wooden blocks are the anti-app, writes Eric Westervelt as part of NPR’s series on the iconic tools of early schooling.

He visits Bing Nursery School on the Stanford campus, where four-year-olds are working together to “balance and secure two semicircular wooden blocks atop two long, straight ones.”

The tower collapses to the carpeted floor at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School.

They work the problem.

It is Silicon Valley, after all. Fail early, fail often, kids. Iterate. Collaborate.

Jacques makes a pitch for stability.

“Corinne, I think if we just put a little on each side and used the right amount where mine was, it would work,” he says. “OK?”

“OK, let’s try,” says Corrine. “OK!”

The tower grows.

Then, to paraphrase Homer, the tower falls thunderously and the blocks clatter about.

“It keeps falling down! Maybe a little higher,” Jacques says, resisting the urge to lose patience.

Wooden blocks, designed in 1913 by a progressive educator, teach mathematical thinking, says Todd Erickson, a head teacher.

For example, 4-year-old Yuri uses large, hollow outdoor building blocks to create a stage. “She looks at the spaces between two sides and starts to grapple with different sized pieces to bridge the gap,” writes Westervelt.

It’s the start of algebra, says Erickson.

“Essentially they’re solving for X,” he says. “They’ve got one piece on one side and one piece on the other and a distance to fill. So what is that amount going to be, what does the length of that block have to be to bridge, to sit at both edges of the block. It’s the beginning of mathematics, really.”

When Yuri loses interest and runs over to the swings, two other girls “turn Yuri’s half-built stage into a makeshift obstacle course,” writes Westervelt.

My sister and I had wooden blocks when we were kids. My sister figured out how to build a domed ceiling with them.

Easy-Bake for all

Hasbro will meet with a 13-year-old New Jersey girl who wants a gender-neutral Easy-Bake oven suitable for her little brother.

McKenna Pope complained the oven  is only available in “girlie purple and pink colors,” she wrote in a petition on Change.org.

My husband asked for an Easy-Bake oven for Christmas more than 50 years ago. He didn’t care about the color. He just figured he could eat more cupcakes if he made them himself, instead of having to wait for his mother to bake.  Later he honed his cooking skills by working in a pizza place.

Gender scrambling is in, writes Hanna Rosin.

. . . Mattel unveiled the Mega Bloks Barbie line, which encourages girls to do what their brothers used to do to annoy them: take apart and rebuild the Barbie house. Lego’s surprise hit this season is a construction kit called “Friends” aimed at girls. Yes, it’s pastel colors, and the characters—Mia, Olivia, and Stephanie—are much curvier than your usual Lego figures. But their logos, printed on the boxes and online, are practical-minded construction type phrases such as: like, “Let’s get to work,” or “Let’s figure it out.”

Costco, meanwhile, is selling a “Police and Fire Playset” that looks remarkably like a dollhouse, with kitchens, bathrooms and loungy sofas and chairs, all in primary colors.

Other popular dollhouses this season stress “female independence,” writes anthropologist Lisa Wade. Instead of a “heteronormative” husband, wife, and children, kids can play with several Barbies and one Ken.

And we all know Ken is gay.

Building blocks are hot in NYC schools

Wooden building blocks are the hot new fad in New York City’s elite schools, reports the New York Times. The story starts  with “block consultant” Jean Schreiber leading a workshop for parents who want to know how to help their children play with blocks.  Schools advertise their “block labs” and “centers.”

Eva Moskowitz, the former city councilwoman who runs a fast-growing network of charter schools, said her schools had created a “religion around blocks,” and she proudly advertises their fully outfitted block labs alongside the chess program and daily science classes. The International School of Brooklyn is developing a program using blocks to reinforce foreign-language acquisition. And Avenues, the for-profit school scheduled to open next year in Greenwich Village, is devoting a large section of its kindergarten floor to a block center.

It costs about \$1,000 to outfit a classroom with a set of blocks, which typically include 5.5-inch-long rectangles as well as pillars, columns, triangles, curves and longer rectangles.

Playing with blocks is supposed to help children learn math concepts, develop language skills and “build the 21st-century skills essential to success in corporate America,” such as not hitting your colleague when he takes the last pillar.

While teachers say children need time for unstructured play, building with blocks is often linked to the curriculum.

At the 92nd Street Y preschool, teachers videotape students doing block work so they can review their process. And at the Packer Collegiate Institute, the Brooklyn Heights private school where educators have recently recommitted themselves to blocks by hosting workshops for teachers and moving block corners to more centralized locations, students often use classroom computers to search for images or watch videos that help them visualize something to build.

They can’t just let the kids play?

My sister and I used to play with blocks, even though our mother had no formal training in encouraging block play. (She was taking care of our baby brother in another room.) My sister figured out how to build a dome ceiling with rectangular blocks. When we got bored, we’d knock it all down and play something else.