With a push for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) development in children, experts are constantly coming up with new research and new methods to find better ways to enhance those science, technology, engineering and maths skills in kids, and get parents and teachers on board, too.

One of those ways relies on a tried-and-true part of playtime, building blocks, and when you add adults to the equation, you’ve got a partnership in play that’ll pay dividends for years to come.

Families explored that partnership recently at the Sauk Valley Community College, Illinois in the United States, where both kids and adults learned a little something during Block Fest, and the older students helped the younger ones build skills that will last them through grade school and beyond.

Northern Illinois University’s Centre for P-20 Engagement and Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development brought Block Fest to Sauk to demonstrate the skills that can be learned from stacking, sorting and creating with non-interlocking blocks – and while playing with blocks might seem simple, there’s more to it than that.

Janice Jones, Sauk’s assistant professor of education, said the programme, originally created at the University of Idaho, helps children as young as eight months, all the way up to eight years, develop early maths skills.

“The idea is there are stages of block play that kids advance through developmentally,” Jones said. “Just giving kids the opportunity to play with blocks or other items, like cardboard boxes and Tupperware containers, and to build and try different things, helps them build maths skills.”

What’s more, those blocks provide the foundation on which kids can build increasingly complex skills from one year to the next, all the way to high school.

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Questions like “Can you find a block the same size as this one?” or “What would happen if you only had these two shapes?” help enhance a child’s play and benefit their understanding of mathematical concepts, such as symmetry and numeracy.

Children also develop their interaction and literacy skills through this type of play. Future Educators member Emily Ditcler said the workshop was a great opportunity for her to see how children think.

“It’s really neat to see how their brains work and how they want to build,” Ditcler said. “I’ve had a couple where they want to get it up really high and I had another kid who just loves pushing them down; he just loves it. It’s kind of interesting to see how they interact with not only the blocks but with each other.”

Families can learn that “interacting with (kids) with whatever you have around the house is academically important down the road,” Jones said.

Amy Jo Clemens, a senior research associate with the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development at NIU, said one of the programme’s goals was to help families develop “a love of non-interlocking blocks”.

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“Research shows that kids who play with non-interlocking blocks develop spatial skills that they’ll need, especially when they’re doing advanced mathematics, like in middle school,” she said.

In other words, Lego blocks are great but nothing can beat the good old classic building blocks. For children who do play with Lego, the transition to non-interlocking blocks can be easy, like it was for Jim Chisholm’s son, Matthew, five.

“We just both love to build stuff,” Chisholm, a physics professor at SVCC, said. “We love playing with Lego and so he jumped right into it.”

Randi Langner said that beyond the academic lessons of Block Fest, like helping create spatial awareness, the event offered a different environment for learning, giving children like her granddaughter, Nora, two, a space to be themselves, without fear of gender stereotypes.

“I think given that opportunity and not putting (children) in certain categories where you have to be cute or have to play with dolls and all that (is great),” Langner said. “Go ahead and have fun and build and knock it down and do what you want, it’s a wonderful thing.” – Daily Gazette/Tribune News Service/Ashley Cady