Behold The Humble Block! Tools Of The Trade : NPR Ed Math. Measurement. Balance. Negotiation. Collaboration. And fun. You might call blocks the anti-app: These smooth maple pieces need no recharging, no downloading.
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Behold The Humble Block! Tools Of The Trade

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Behold The Humble Block! Tools Of The Trade

Behold The Humble Block! Tools Of The Trade

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And we're going to hear some sounds now from the classroom. There's a lot of debate about how much screen time kids should get and what educational apps might help them learn. But today, we're focusing on what you might call the anti-app - the humble wooden block. Many early childhood teachers say blocks are essential tools for preschoolers to start learning basic math, collaboration and much more. Eric Westervelt from the NPR Ed team gets down on the block floor in this installment of Tools of The Trade.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM)

JAQUES: Let's just put these blocks up. I think this will probably work. Be careful, Corinne.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: With the focused intensity of ordinance disposal experts, preschoolers Jaques and Corinne work to balance and secure two semicircular wooden blocks atop two long, straight ones.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM)

JAQUES: We just put these little cubes...

CORINNE: We can put them on the other side.

JAQUES: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKS FALLING DOWN)

JAQUES: It keeps falling down.

WESTERVELT: It keeps falling.

JAQUES: Maybe a little higher.

WESTERVELT: They work the problem. More blocks are enlisted to help fight gravity. It is Silicon Valley - fail early, fail often, kids - iterate.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM)

JAQUES: Corinne, I think if we put it a little on each side and you stack the right around where mine was, it would work, OK?

CORINNE: OK, let's try.

WESTERVELT: Soon, other preschoolers wander over to try to help build this hour's great random block tower at Stanford University's Bing Nursery School.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM)

JAQUES: If we can't do it, we can build something else.

CORINNE: OK, what?

WESTERVELT: Bing is a laboratory school, which means the psychology department conducts research on child development here. The school's emphasis is on free-range play. Here blocks, along with clay, paint, sand and water, are the basic materials preschoolers use every day. Wander in, wonder off - play hard, live free.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOLYARD)

WESTERVELT: What are you guys doing, man? What's going on?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: We're going to find the bad guys and see where they are.

WESTERVELT: And blocks - lots of them - aren't just used inside. In the school's spacious grass-covered yard, 4-year-old Yuri works alone, turning large, hollow outdoor building blocks into an imaginative play area.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOLYARD)

WESTERVELT: What are you building there? Are you just going to see what happens, or you have an idea?

YURI: Stage.

WESTERVELT: A stage?

As her stage takes shape, Yuri looks at the spaces between two sides and starts to grapple with different-sized pieces to bridge that gap. Todd Erikson, a head teacher here, whispers to me, see, in a sense, she's really starting algebra.

TODD ERIKSON: Essentially, they're solving for X. They've got one piece on one side, one piece on the other. And they've got a distance to fill. So what is that amount going to be? What does the length of that block have to be? It's the beginning of mathematics, really.

WESTERVELT: Ten minutes later, Yuri loses interest. A swing beckons.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOLYARD)

YURI: Do it very careful.

WESTERVELT: Teacher Erikson says he's regularly in awe of the continuing pedagogic and play power of these simple pieces of sanded maple.

ERIKSON: I think they're so simple that it's very easy to look down on them, almost - to disqualify them in terms of their complexity. There's work with balance, science, math, social-emotional language. All these things interweave so beautifully, so - in such a sophisticated way for such a basic material. It's really amazing.

WESTERVELT: Several early childhood studies have shown that children who play with blocks regularly have improved language and cognition skills. But they're also just a lot of fun. No downloads necessary.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOLYARD)

WESTERVELT: What are you making there?

On an outdoor bench, 4-year-old TJ is hammering together small scrap blocks of wood. A teacher is nearby to help as needed. TJ's working off a raw yet fairly detailed paper sketch he's made.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOLYARD)

TJ: This is the first page. This is the second page.

WESTERVELT: Whoa, you've got a whole blueprint there for a car.

TJ: Yes. It puts lots of things together to make this whole thing with all those blocks.

WESTERVELT: It's kind of a Henry Ford meets Elon Musk. I like it.

TJ: Yeah.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOLYARD)

TJ: I'm ready, teacher Emma.

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