The Things That Define Us (Words and Work)

The Building Blocks of Life

Wooden blocks seem almost synonymous with toddler play.  Building towers, constructing bridges… toppling towers, smashing bridges… and repeat. 

Early on, the child’s process is primarily a lesson on the direction and force of gravity, paired with a new observation of balance.  Why doesn’t the tall cylinder balance on top of the triangle?  How many of these rectangles can I stack before the whole structure collapses?  And why can’t I place the big, heavy, arch on top?

As the toddler advances, more creativity typically ensues.  Where is the entrance to my building?  Does my tower have windows?  Can my bridge reach from the coffee table to the sofa? 

Throughout the activity, the small wooden figures are gripped, turned, stacked, arranged (and sometimes thrown) by little hands that are still learning to interact with the physical world.  The soft-sanded wooden sides are comfortable to clasp and perceptibly display their differences of weight and size.   Learning to imaginatively assemble three-dimensional structures helps refine fine motor skills, personal balance, and spatial awareness.  

Your modern mental image of such blocks is likely to be the Unit Blocks conceived by Caroline Platt at the beginning of the 20th century.  Produced in unpainted maple wood, the precisely planned set of rectangles, squares, triangles, arches and columns, was designed to provide a cohesive set of blocks that encouraged creative engagement.  They were devised after Patty Smith Hill’s block set (which were much larger, sometimes requiring children’s teamwork to carry and place).  Both, in turn, had been thematically derived from Friedrich Fröbel’s “gifts,” from the early 1800s. These toys were a series of children’s objects intended to inspire learning through supervised ‘discovery.’  In fact, Platt’s basic unit block (with a 1:2:4 ratio) was closely based on the blocks from Fröbel’s 4th “gift.” 

Of course, today’s tot doesn’t need to reflect on the long pedigree of their wooden toys to appreciate playtime.  The thoughtfully constructed shapes are effortlessly appreciated for their underlying material commonality and self-referential sizes.   The mathematical nature of the shapes helps indoctrinate young minds into classical ratios and historic architectural and artistic balance. 

While designed for exploratory play by young children, the ‘quantifiable’ qualities of the blocks lead educators to begin using unit blocks primarily with older children during the 2nd half of the 20th century.  First used as a teaching aid in lessons on two and three-dimensional geometry, they are now often used as tools for instruction the basics of mathematical concepts.  Simultaneously, many environments have seen the physical blocks replaced by computer applications.  After all, the ratios are the same in the virtual world as they are in the physical one, and allow for limitless possibilities (and never run out of blocks again!). 

Unfortunately, this slow shift in purpose and substance may underscore a larger crisis in how we have changed our priorities in the education of our youth, and even how we are actively constructing our modern “grown-up” world. 

Ms. Platt’s blocks were intended for play.  Differentiating her work from that of Fröbel (whose ‘gifts’ were always intended to be used with the direct aid of an instructor, with ‘correct’ results), Unit Blocks allowed children to discover and freely represent their world in a truly creative way.  True, the strict mathematical nature of the blocks mirror the architectural and artistic structures that toddlers will naturally come into contact within Western culture, but this is to provide a sense of familiarity more than a formal lesson.  Play, on the other hand, involves a whole host of activities.  Formal buildings are created, certainly – but perhaps more important is that they are knocked over (nothing is permanent).  And then there is the joy that comes from smacking two wooden blocks together, creating that wonderful, resonant, sound (many formal, classical instruments are just this!).  Even misuse, in throwing, dropping, or dousing/floating (in water) the wooden toys simultaneously teaches the physical qualities of wood, and perchance the social expectations of our world.  It is the openness and physicality of their use that is the most important features. 

I am far from a scholar in elementary education.  However, it is common knowledge that the past half-century has watched American education race towards of an ideal of young student scholarship – pushing elementary rote learning to ever earlier ages – hoping our kids will read at the age of three, learning algebra by four, and graduating from MIT at the age of 12 (with a fluency in at least four languages).  As we watched grown-up money move from a labor-force to a knowledge-force, the only way to get ahead seemed to be by stuffing our children with as much of that job-getting-material as we could, and as early as we could. 

Besides the fact that we’ve only been moderately successful at our educational goal (compared to the rest of the world), we have since built digital economy and shared (corporate) brain that may have already annulled our efforts.  We are able to instantly look up any fact (or fiction) online.  We have applications that answer our math problems faster than we can formulate the question (perhaps, in itself, a problem).  And we have free language translations, just a Google away. 

I do not suggest that any of these features of the contemporary life are inevitably good or inherently bad.  Certainly, as individuals, and as a larger society, we must keep the knowledge we put in the digital cloud close to the chest (and head)– lest we loose it to our corporations forever, never to have known what we lost!  But more practically, it means our beloved white-collar college-educated jobs are suddenly the ones most at risk.  In many fields, we are already watching while computers replace these knowledge-based positions as easily as machines seized our labor jobs. 

So, back to the blocks. 

The blocks teach our children to experience the world in a purely creative way.  Provided we allow them to “learn” in an open atmosphere, children will always find new ways of using the blocks.   Whether they assemble wild structures that reach beyond our own assumed possibilities (entrepreneurial innovation), use them with other toys (cross-department synergy), or develop new social skills when sharing or trading with other children (collaboration/non-zero sum negotiation), these simple wooden shapes offer greater life skills than the critical adult may imagine. 

We know today’s business environment is already asking for these skills.  Which is just one reason why a few of us might consider a small set of blocks for ourselves. 

Certainly, executive desk toys have been popular for high-level managers with enough real estate on their desk to allow for more than a family photo since the 1960’s, providing momentary distraction from the day’s work.  Much more recently, “fidget toys” have appeared on the market.  Instead of the promised freedom from hard labor, it seems our spreadsheet-laden, meeting-overload, white-collar workplace is driving our fingers to twitch, tap and tinker in protest.

So rather than diverting our mental tension into smaller, carpal tunnel-inducing gadgets (as if our phones aren’t enough!), pick up a wooden block.  Stack it on another wooden block.  Then, place one beside it.  Perhaps, lay one across the two, creating a bridge.  Knock it over.  Do it again, differently.  Knock it over.  Again. 

For two minutes, don’t check your email.  Don’t look at social media streams.  Hide your phone, and avoid the attack of texts, updates, and push notifications. 

I am not asserting that wooden blocks will bring you the next world-changing business idea, or abundant corporate success.  However, you might regain a brief sense of freedom and creativity as you build your real-world structure.  You may then find relief in knocking it over without consequence.  All of which may lead to some open-ended thinking that allows you to find a new lead in your work, or direction in your vocation.  At very least, you will enjoy a moment, or two, of unadulterated play.  


Additional Reading:

How Do Unit Blocks Help Children Learn?  (The Economist)

Blocks as a Tool for Learning (Karen Hewitt)

Behold the Humble Block! (NPR)

With Blocks, Educators Go Back to Basics (The New York Times)