“Blocktober” connects university researchers with N–2 students

In his book Philosophy of Education, Lab founder John Dewey wrote, “education is not an affair of 'telling' and being told, but an active and constructive process.” Nowhere is Dewey’s idea of constructive education more evident than in the block play areas of Lab’s N–2 classrooms. There students build not only fantastical constructions of wood, but also connections and communities of their own designs.

Blocktober 2It’s this communal, participatory learning that makes block play the perfect subject to learn more about childhood development, according to Erikson Institute PhD candidate Missi Jacobson. Jacobson is currently studying the habits of N–2 students as part of her dissertation on block play and peer culture in early childhood education. From their origins in the early 1900s, block play activities have become, according to Jacobson, “a unique space to study peer culture in a classroom because there are not designated spaces for children to sit or pre-distributed materials.” Observing the children at play allows her a unique insight into how they are growing and taking ownership and agency at the block play station. “Adults initially create the rules and environment,” Jacobson says, “but eventually children take over the management of social order by engaging together in communal processes.”

Elsewhere in Earl Shapiro Hall, Lab learners are getting the chance to participate in a very different research project also involving blocks. Students in the UChicago class Children & Architecture are creating a series of children’s play blocks of varying designs and materials. Next, they’re putting their creations to the ultimate test: playtime in N–2 classrooms. Designers will then come into ESH to observe how their creations fare in the hands of actual students.

Whether looking back at the history of blocks or ahead to their future, these projects exemplify the mission of the Laboratory schools, providing students with active, engaged learning and giving researchers the chance to progress our knowledge of educational best practices. While block play might seem simple at first, the insights these academics achieve could be the foundation for new methodologies for early child education. “Wooden unit blocks look plain,” Jacobson reminds us, “but that’s what allows children to build whatever they can imagine.”

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