STEM Play With Pattern Blocks

by Diann Gano, M.Ed


“Hey, that’s cool. I like your guy!” says four-year-old Jaheem, peering over Michelea’s shoulder as she plays with her pattern blocks.

“It’s not a guy; it’s a flower!” Michelea replies, tilting her head to try to see the “guy” that Jaheem is referring to.

“That’s the stem and the leaves,” she explains, pointing to the green triangles. “And these blocks at the top are the flower.”

Then James weighs in, laughing as he sits down next to Michelea to join in the block play. “I thought it was a guy too—and you forgot to make the other leg!”

“Did you think these were arms?” Michelea asks, giggling. “They aren’t arms; they’re leaves!”

The friends continue to banter good-naturedly as they design with their pattern blocks. The beauty of block play is that it’s hands-on—which facilitates deeper learning and creates a more enjoyable and memorable experience.

We have many different types of blocks in our early childhood classroom, but the pattern blocks—introduced by the Education Development Center in the 1960s to help children develop the spatial reasoning skills they need to master math—have been a part of our play rotation for the past few weeks.

A set of pattern blocks typically consists of six different shapes in six different colors: a yellow hexagon, a red trapezoid, a green equilateral triangle, a blue rhombus, an orange square, and a tan or white thin rhombus. Except for the trapezoid, the lengths of the sides of each shape are the same, which makes it easy for children to fit the pieces together when creating pictures and designs.

Pattern-block play builds inventive and imaginative thinking. These blocks seem to unlock a particular kind of creativity that isn’t always evident in other forms of block play.  

This morning, Jaheem, Michelea and James seem to be creating stories with their pattern blocks while collaborating and mentoring each other in a relaxed and playful way.

“Look!  Michelea tells James, pointing at her latest pattern-block creation. “This is you walking your dog in the sunshine. It took me a long time because I had to figure out how to make the legs. I had them turned in the wrong direction!”

As children discover that they can rotate, flip and rearrange shapes in different ways, they become increasingly aware of two-dimensional shapes. Block play also promotes fine motor skill development as children manipulate the blocks to create their designs.

I watch as Jaheem, James and Michela learn how to measure heights, lengths and areas. Geometric shapes are a kindergarten common core standard, and when children engage in hands-on play with shapes, the learning becomes deeper, more intentional and more relevant.

Geometry is the area of mathematics that involves shape, size, position, direction, and movement. In early childhood education, geometric skills include identifying and comparing shapes, differentiating between shapes, and creating shapes.

The research backing up the importance of spatial skills in early learning is extensive and well-documented:

  • A 2009 Vanderbilt University review in the Journal of Educational Psychology looked at over 50 years of longitudinal research on spatial ability and concluded that “spatial ability plays a critical role in developing expertise in STEM.”
  • In its Learning to Think Spatially consensus study report, the National Research Council underscored the importance of spatial skills, stating that “underpinning success in both mathematics and science is the capacity to think spatially.”
  • A 2017 study from the University of Toronto looked at a spatial-skills intervention implemented in grades K-2. Students were presented with activities that targeted spatial skills, such as finding lines of symmetry, proportional reasoning (the number of tiles needed to fill a space), composition, and visualization. The study found that participating students showed improvement in spatial language, visual-spatial reasoning, 2D mental rotation, and symbolic number comparison.

During today’s pattern-block play session, the three preschoolers are actively exploring combinations of shapes in their constructive play. I watch as they discover that they can combine two squares to make a rectangle and investigate what happens when they turn a shape upside down. (It’s still the same shape even if it looks different!)

Research shows that young children’s spatial skills, rather than their numerical abilities, predict their overall mathematics achievement: The key skills are visualizing what shapes will look like when they are combined or rotated (Young et al., 2018). Working with shapes and spaces may provide a more accessible route to math proficiency for some children than focusing only on numbers.

Pattern-block play also promotes creativity and problem-solving—with no rules or guidelines to stop the flow. Children have the freedom to create their own designs and structures without having to worry about “getting it right.”

So dig out those pattern blocks and watch the spatial awareness blossom and the creativity flow!

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