Block-play may improve language development in toddlers

October 01, 2007

Playing with toy blocks may lead to improved language development in middle- and low-income children, according to a report in the October issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

"Early childhood represents a critical period in the development of young minds," according to background information in the article. "The newborn brain triples in size between birth and 2 years of age. The long-standing presumption has been that certain activities during this period promote optimal development and that others may hinder it." The development of memory and the roots of impulse control and language can be acquired through imaginative play. Many toys today claim to improve children's cognitive development. However, most such claims are unsubstantiated.

Dimitri A. Christakis, M.D., M.P.H, of the University of Washington, Seattle and the Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute, and colleagues conducted a pilot study involving 175 children age 1.5 to 2.5 years. One group of 88 children was mailed two sets of building blocks and two newsletters with suggestions for parents about activities that families could do with the blocks (for example, sorting them by color). The other group of 87 children did not receive any blocks until after the conclusion of the study. Parents, who were told only that they were participating in a study of child time use, completed a questionnaire about basic demographic information at the beginning of the study and provided time diaries that tracked the activities of their child during two 24-hour periods during the trial. Parents completed another questionnaire by telephone six months after enrollment that included assessments of their children's language and attention.

Ninety-two families (53 percent) returned at least one diary entry and exit interviews were completed by 140 families (80 percent). Of those who received the two sets of blocks during the study, 52 (59 percent) had block-play reported in their diaries compared with only 11 (13 percent) of those in the other group.

"In this pilot study, we found that distributing blocks was associated with significantly higher language scores in a sample of middle- and low-income children," the authors write. On average, children who received blocks score 15 percent higher on their language assessment than those who did not. The results suggest that a program that distributes blocks may be effective in promoting development. There was no difference found in attention scores between the two study groups.

The researchers speculate that the distribution of toy blocks resulted in more block-play (based on diary entries) and that this block playtime may be replacing other forms of time use that do not encourage language development. Television time may have also been replaced by block-play.

"Further study (including laboratory assessments) to corroborate these findings and to explore whether attentional capacity could be significantly improved given a larger sample is warranted."
(Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161(10):967-971. Available pre-embargo to the media at

Editor's Note: This study was funded by Mega Bloks, which provided research support and the blocks themselves. Please see the article for additional information, including other authors, author contributions and affiliations, financial disclosures, funding and support, etc.

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