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Block play: Benefits and best building sets and blocks

Building toys can play a significant role in nearly every area of your child's growth.
Brother and sister playing on floor at home with blocks
Cavan Images / Getty Images

Did you know you can build a sand castle without sand? I know this sounds a little like a morning riddle you might get from your Starbucks barista, but evidently it’s a fact. Well, according to my two-year-old son, it’s a fact. Every morning, as I make some frozen pancakes for his breakfast, my boy sits on his playroom floor, surrounded by a zillion colorful blocks and builds “sand castles”.

Block toys make our mornings interesting — and when the wooden blocks are involved, they can also make our mornings very loud. Noisy as they may be, building blocks are a blast and are a reliable “playmate” for those times when I need to dash to the laundry room or sneak away to load the dishwasher.

Each day, my son surprises me with an imaginary blueprint for his next big build. You can almost see his little wheels turning, dreaming, creating, growing. That’s the beauty of block play, according to Jackie White, Director of Early Childhood Education at Trojan Tots Preschool in Indianapolis, IN.

“The possibilities are endless with blocks,” said White. “Blocks promote a healthy imagination, creativity and positive self-esteem. Children can use these open-ended materials to imagine and create anything they can dream up.”

What are the benefits of block play in early childhood?

Beyond firing up your child’s creativity neurons, block play can have an impactful educational role in almost every area of a child’s development, says White.

  • Problem-solving skills - “By working to stack blocks on top of one another, the child must navigate the cause and effect of when and why a block tower might fall over in order to successfully build the structure.”
  • Fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination - “When stacking blocks or building structures, children must call upon the small muscles in their hands as well as their hand-eye coordination to figure out how to get the blocks to stay where they want them. Of course, bigger blocks would also require gross motor skills!”
  • Spatial awareness - “This skill becomes very important when trying to figure out how to best manage the blocks. Especially when there may be many different sizes and shapes to choose from.”
  • Math - "Figuring out which sizes and shapes work best when stacking towers versus roads versus structures. Gravity, balance and geometry all play a large role in block play.”
  • Language and literacy - “Block play also provides opportunities for children to work as a team and share ideas. When working with others, the children must communicate their plans so that the project can be successful. Also, when more supplies are needed, children must be able to communicate what they need. Typically, as children play, a story is being told and language is being used. A fun literacy extension to block play would be to take a picture of a structure, or if the child is old enough have them draw it, and let the child dictate a story to you about what is going on in their structure. This is a fun way to incorporate art and literacy at the same time! You could even save the pictures and stories in a binder for fun bedtime reading.”

One of the other reasons the benefits are endless is by the durability of blocks themselves. As any parent who has ever stepped on a block can tell you, blocks rarely get broken and rarely get old.

“Due to the open-ended nature of the play and the durability, blocks and magnets can be used for years — meaning children don't typically "grow out" of them after just a few months,” White added.

How should children play with building toys?

While there isn’t really a wrong way to play with blocks, there are some ways to limit frustrations and ofttimes deepen and enhance the scope play, White shared.

“I would suggest encouraging block play on a hard flat surface such as a coffee table or wood floor to limit frustrations that a softer surface can create,” White said.

As your child grows and develops, consider broadening their block horizons by adding some items into the mix. “Enhance block play with other materials such as people, cars and animals,” suggested White. “We love to introduce a variety of found materials like stones, sticks, shells and even homemade popsicle stick people to keep children engaged in even longer, deeper play,”

In White’s experience, wooden blocks and Magna Tiles are always a fan favorite, but at the end of the day, whatever block inspires your child to create is the winner.

“Let your children explore and let them lead the way,” said White. When it comes to block play, as parents, White recommended to “ask open-ended questions using how, why, what, where and when."

Best building sets and blocks, according to shoppers

Mega Bloks First Builders Let's Get Learning Construction Set

So. Many. Blocks. 150 blocks to be exact. These Mega Bloks are great for little hands working on their fine motor skills or honing their “sand castles” tall tower building skills.

Clixo Rainbow 42-Piece Pack

New to our home’s toy box, a 2021 Toy of the Year Finalist! This great 42-piece magnetic set from Clixo is versatile not only in what you can build, but where you can build it. These magnets can be wiped clean or tossed into the dishwasher for a deep scrubbing.

KEVA Structures 200 Plank Set

Simplicity is what makes these blocks so special. Made out of precision cut pine, these plank pieces are all the same shape, length and weight. This might not sound super exciting at first, but just take a peek at the included plank design guide and get back to me.

Himiku Balancing Blocks

These blocks may look like stone, but “wooden” you know it, they aren’t rocks at all! These unique wooden blocks come in a variety of colors, shapes and weights that not only promote creativity and focus, but also help your child test and practice object balance.

Uncle Goose Classic ABC Blocks

Blocks don’t get more classic than these. This set includes 28 beautifully handcrafted wooden blocks and are appropriate for ages 2 and up.

Blockaroo Builders Plane Building Blocks Bath Toy

Blocks in the bath? Okay, I’m sold. This soft foam bath toy set can be assembled into a fun plane shape or can simply float piece by piece in your child’s tub. Dealer’s choice! These blocks are dishwasher safe for easy cleaning and ideal for ages 18 months and older.

Magna-Tiles Eric Carle "The Very Hungry Caterpillar"

One of my son’s favorite books meets one of his favorite toys in this wonderful magnetic block set. Tell the story of the very hungry caterpillar, count to five or build a 3D magnetic caterpillar — the possibilities are endless with these Magna-Tiles!

Melissa & Doug Extra-Thick Cardboard Building Blocks

Big old blocks for some big old fun! These extra thick cardboard blocks take construction to the next level. Lightweight and colorful, these blocks are easily assembled, durable and best for ages 2 to 4.

SmartMax Start STEM Magnetic Discovery Building Set

STEM meets form and function with this inventive 42-piece set. So many different shapes, colors and lengths to play with! These magnet blocks can construct anything from a 2D/3D structure to letters in the alphabet. They're also suitable for children ages 3 and up.

LeapFrog LeapBuilders 81-Piece Jumbo Blocks

Just dump these blocks on the floor and let the creative thinking begin! As your child stacks one or all of these 81 blocks, they may pick up a few letters of the alphabet letters or build you a sweet dinosaur along the way.

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