What is it that spurs the development of scientific and mathematical thinking in some children, but not others? Research from the University of Delaware suggests that the time children spend playing with blocks can improve spatial skills and provide a basis for the ongoing development of mathematical problem solving skills. The research suggests that simply playing with blocks could help diminish the socioeconomic disparity among those who later choose to pursue a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines.

The research team evaluated over 100 three-year-olds from multiple socioeconomic backgrounds. They administered two tests to assess the children’s spatial and math skills. The first test incorporated a block-building task, which focused on skills like determining which blocks should go above or below another. The second test used a math assessment developed specifically for young children that surveyed skills from basic counting up to addition and subtraction.

The tests revealed that the three-year-olds who performed better at copying block structures were also better at math skills. The other critical finding was that by age three, an achievement gap between lower-income and higher-income families was already apparent. The authors suggest that this may be due to less experience with blocks or other toys among the lower-income children and that the lower-income children’s parents used terminology like “below” and “above” less frequently. However, the solution is relatively inexpensive and simple: provide blocks to low-income families. Promoting access to toys like blocks could have far-reaching effects on later STEM achievement.

“Research in the science of learning has shown that experiences like block building and puzzle play can improve children’s spatial skills and that these skills support complex mathematical problem solving in middle school and high school. This is the first research to demonstrate a similar relationship in preschoolers,” commented Brian Verdine, co-author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Delaware.

This research is published in the journal Child Development.

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