Everything I know About Early Childhood Education, I learned with Wooden Blocks, Part 1:

“One Simple Tip for Making Transition Times Easier. . .

for Everyone”

By Efrim Chiavetta




Ok, so not everything, of course, but, aside from the clear value they have in developing children’s motor skills, supporting imaginative play, and providing lots of opportunities for creative problem solving and frustration tolerance, there is also much to be learned by adults from observing how children use the classic wooden unit block. And, as adults, we can pick up a trick or two from them ourselves.

Next to the stick or the empty cardboard box, unit blocks are about the simplest, most straightforward children’s toy you can find, and I am often amazed at the strange feats of balance, or complicated moments of symmetry that children achieve with them. And like these surprising structures that children build, some of the lessons we grown-ups can take away from using blocks as a parenting tool can also be quite elegant, and at times even sophisticated and nuanced.

For example, the way children use blocks can help indicate the developmental stage they are in, and which they are moving towards. They can highlight skills that are emerging, and those that a child is still practicing. The dramatic scenarios they give rise to can reveal our kids’ interests, passions and questions. And they often set the stage for the shift from parallel to cooperative play in preschoolers.

Over the course of the next several months, I will touch on each of these topics. Here, however I would like to share what I have learned about helping children (and ourselves) through the often tricky moment of transition.

Tell Me If This Sounds Familiar

It’s bed time . . . or time for dinner, or to walk out the door to make it to a party on time, or to leave for school, or leave school . . . and your child, looking to you from the project they are building (or painting, or cooking, or drawing ), and in their most earnest, pl aintive voice asks for “just one more minute . . . pleeeeeaaassse?!”

No problem. You are, after all, informed in the art of negotiation. You recognize that a willingness to engage your child in series of give-and-takes now will provide them with a sense of autonomy that will serve them well as self-directed adults in the future.

Easy-peezy. You can, when necessary, manage the delicate practice of reframing. You reposition yourself to see the more challenging aspects of your child’s temperament in positive terms. They are not contrary and obstinate, but rather spirited, a natural leader.

They are not stubborn, but possess the stick-to-it attitude needed to make it through life’s inevitable obstacles.

Like cake. You recognize that there is no such thing as “bad behaviour,” only expressions of unmet needs.

I am being a little glib here, but I am not making light. These are all wonderfully effective parenting tools, and each illustrates a deep respect for the child. And it is this deep respect, perhaps more than anything else, that we want children to take away and internalize from these interactions and practices.

Right now, however, the particular obstacle life has thrown your way is your child’s unwillingness to break play so that you may successfully steer the ship of family smoothly to its next port of destination. So you ask some variation of “what do you need to do to complete what you are doing?” or, “How many more minutes do you think you will need to finish and be ready?”

Undoubtedly, this often works. But, as we all know, you may receive an answer that is simply untenable, “I will never be ready, I am going to stay here forever.” Or the child may pay lip service, telling you they are almost done, but continue to work away indefinitely. Or they may simply not respond at all.

The specifics may shift, but as an early childhood educator, I have lived some rendition this scenario hundreds of times, often many times a day, and I have found one simple method of helping both myself and children make it through these moments of reticence that works for each of us equally.

“Work is Play, and Play is Work”

img_0342This quote from one of our Lab kids, Age 8, sums up perfectly our approach to children. The work of childhood is play. It is how they create, form relationships, learn the limits of their own bodies, build the language of social interaction, and develop the skills they will use the rest of their life, even once play is, ostensibly at least, separated from the work they will do as adults.

Very often, when a child expresses reticence at leaving a current project, it is less about an unwillingness to move to whatever comes next, or simply because they are having too much fun – though these are valid reasons in themselves, from the child’s perspective. When we ask children to break play for transitions, we recognize that we are asking them to interrupt the very work of childhood, the very process by which new skills and information is encoded in the body and brain.

For children however, play is valued, purely and simply, as play, for its own sake, and it can be for us also.

When it comes to transitions then, we are tasked with finding a way to demonstrate that the play we are limiting is valued, not for the lessons it teaches, or the passion it elicits in our children (though these are important also), but valued in-an-of-itself, as the child sees it.

Back to Those Blocks

Block structures are, by nature, temporary, fragile, and, to many children, all too fleeting creations. After observing children in play with blocks for years, I have noticed that when it is time to clean up, to leave the house or school, or when there is a lot of potential for structures to be knocked over by other play, children may become anxious or frustrated about this, but lack the language to say so. And I have also observed that adults often misread this.

One of the easiest ways I have found to assuage this anxiety is to offer to take a picture of their project.

Photographs allow children to relive and remember through representation the experience of building. Once the picture is taken, they know they can show their friends or other family members once it gets cleaned up. Or that they can rebuild it if necessary if it gets topled.

When it comes time to transition out of play, by offering children a form of longevity for their projects, we provide a sense of safety and connection to the project we are asking them to separate from. I have found that this technique is more often than not met with enthusiasm and willingness to move forward with what comes next. Even if the photos are never used, they help to bring closure, and a lasting sense of value and perpetuity to a project they are invested in.

Transition Time Tip

This method, of course, is not limited to block play, or other transitory kinds of physical structures, such as Legos, Magna-tiles etc, or even more permanant kinds, like drawings and painting. Plan ahead, and try to come up with variations to match different activities.

As an educator, I often offer children the option to write letters or draw pictures for Mom or Dad during difficult separations. This can work with peers also. When it is time to leave a play date, set aside a time before bed or dinner for writing a letter to the friend your child is saying goodbye to. Or maybe you have an avid reader that finds it hard to put down their book when it is time to get some shopping done? Smart phones make it easy for children to dictate stories, allowing children to come up with their own endings to the chapter they are reading in the car ride to the grocery store.

Be creative, however you choose to demonstrate to a child that their play is valued on their own terms, will help that child move on from that play when it is time.

What has worked for you? Leave a comment, or start a conversation on our Facebook page and let us know!

Efrim is The Lab’s Director of Operations, you can read is bio here.