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Showcase September 2014: Early block play predicts conceptual understanding of geometry and mathematical equivalence in elementary school

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Early block play predicts conceptual understanding of geometry and mathematical equivalence in elementary school

Lori Petersen and Susan Levine (Co-PI)

University of Chicago


Research up-date as of January 7, 2016:

  • We are currently working on some more extensive coding for this project with respect to gender. Mothers tend to talk more about spatial concepts to their sons than to their daughters during block play. The current question we are addressing with coding is what mothers are talking about when they do talk about space. Are they simply pointing out superficial aspects of the structure (e.g., "This building is tall."), or are they describing spatial relations necessary for learning how to build a secure structure? [Note: A more detailed up-date will follow when that becomes available.]

Individual differences in spatial skills can be detected before children begin school (Linn & Petersen, 1985). It is important to understand which early experiences influence spatial skills because they are linked to future math achievement and STEM career outcomes (Casey, Nuttall, & Pezaris, 1997). Unfortunately, few studies have investigated the naturally occurring activities that influence spatial reasoning (Levine, Ratliff, Huttenlocher & Cannon, 2012). The current study examines children’s early block play, a rich spatial activity that may be related to later mathematical thinking (Wolfgang, Stannard & Jones, 2003).

56 parent-child dyads were visited in their homes every four months between 26- and 46-months. At each visit, the dyads were videotaped for 90 minutes while they engaged in their daily routines. During the home visits, families engaged in many activities, such as eating during snack time, playing on a playground, or reading a book together. The six home visits were coded for whether children engaged in block play (or not). A block play episode was defined as the child playing with blocks of any kind, including Legos, for at least 30 seconds.

Previous research has shown that block play complexity measured in preschool related to standardized test scores and math grades in middle school and high school, but not in elementary school (Wolfgang et al., 2003). Thus, we predicted that children who played with blocks would have better scores than children who didn’t play with blocks on more complex math skills, like geometry, but perhaps not on simpler math skills, like calculation. To test our hypothesis, we measured children’s mathematical thinking at two time points, in first and third grade. In first grade, children’s verbal calculation and nonverbal calculation were tested. In third grade, children were given four assessments: (1) Woodcock-Johnson II Applied Problems, (2) KeyMath Geometry, (3) Math Equivalence Problems, and (4) 1-1000 Number Line Estimation Task.

Some previous research suggests that children who build more complex structures with blocks also have better spatial reasoning (Brosnan, 1998; Caldera, Culp, O’Brien, Truglio, Alvarez, & Huston, 1999). Thus, we also predicted that children who played with blocks would have better spatial reasoning skills than children who didn’t play with blocks. To test our hypothesis, we measured children’s spatial visualization in third grade with the Spatial Relations Subtest, Thurstone Primary Mental Abilities, Readiness Level. In order to test the specificity of the benefits of block play to spatial and mathematical thinking, we examined the relation of this kind of play to reading comprehension in both first grade (Woodcock-Johnson II Passage Comprehension) and third grade (Gates MacGinitie Test of Reading Comprehension).

As predicted, block play did not predict the simple math measures in first grade, but it did predict some of the more complex math measures in third grade. Specifically, children who played with blocks during preschool scored higher on KeyMath Geometry and on the Math Equivalence Problems. However, early block play did not predict performance on the Woodcock-Johnson Applied Problems, the Number Line Estimation Task, or the Thurstone spatial visualization task. Further, block play also did not predict reading comprehension in either first or third grade.

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In summary, results suggest that block play during the preschool years is associated with math equivalence and geometry knowledge four years later. Although block play did not predict 2D spatial visualization in third grade, it may be related to other spatial skills such as 3D spatial visualization, including mental rotation (Casey, Andrews, Schindler, Kersh, Samper & Copley, 2008). These correlational findings open the possibility that early block play is causally related to later mathematical thinking. Future experimental research should manipulate various aspects of block play in order to examine which aspects are particularly supportive of later mathematical thinking.


  • ♦ Brosnan, M. J. (1998). Spatial ability in children’s play with Lego blocks. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 87, 19-28.
  • ♦ Caldera, Y. M., Culp, A. M., O’Brien, M., Truglio, R. T., Alvarez, M., & Huston, A. C. (1999). Children’s play preferences, construction play with blocks, and visual-spatial skills: Are they related? International Journal of Behavioral Development, 23, 855-872.
  • ♦ Casey, M. B., Andrews, N., Schindler, H., Kersh, J. E., Samper, A., & Copley, J. (2008). The development of spatial skills through interventions involving block building activities. Cognition and Instruction, 26, 269-309.
  • ♦ Casey, M. B., Nuttall, R., & Pezaris, E. (1997). Mediators of gender differences in mathematics college entrance test scores: A comparison of spatial skills with internalized beliefs and anxieties. Developmental Psychology, 33, 669-680.
  • ♦ Levine, S. C., Ratliff, K. R., Huttenlocher, J., & Cannon, J. (2012). Early puzzle play: A predictor of preschoolers’ spatial transformation skill. Developmental Psychology, 48, 530-542.
  • ♦ Linn, M. C., & Petersen, A. C. (1985). Emergence and characterization of sex differences in spatial ability: A meta-analysis. Child Development, 56, 1479-1498.
  • ♦ Wolfgang, C., Stannard, L., & Jones, I. (2003). Advanced constructional play with Legos among preschoolers as a predictor of later school achievement in mathematics. Early Child Development and Care, 173(5), 467-475.
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