Using Blocks to Build Tomorrow’s Engineers |


While most early educators recognize that block play is linked to early learning, it can be difficult to find blocks and other simple building materials in today’s first and second grade classrooms — and sadly, even in many kindergartens.

But over the past few years, a chorus of science teachers and researchers has started lobbying for elementary schools to offer a block-building program called Ramps & Pathways. They argue this is a great way to build young students’ skills in STEM and literacy, especially when trained teachers offer challenges and guidance and then step out of the way. A recent article I wrote for the Smithsonian Magazine’s Innovations blog, “To Develop Tomorrow’s Engineers, Start Before They Can Tie Their Shoes,” describes how it works:

In Ramps and Pathways classrooms, children explore the properties and possibilities inherent in a few simple materials: blocks, marbles, and strips of wooden cove molding, a long, thin construction material used to finish cabinets and trim ceilings. Teachers push desks and chairs out of the way to allow room for the sometimes-sprawling roller coasters that emerge. By building and adjusting inclines propped by blocks, children experiment with marbles moving along various paths. Their job is to test and retest different angles, figuring out new ways to take their marbles on a wild ride.

“We always see little sparks” of insights among the students, says Rosemary Geiken, an education professor at East Tennessee State University who assists elementary school teachers who have never used this teaching method before. One time, she says, she watched a little girl with three boys having trouble getting a marble to land in a bucket. The girl whispered to the boys. Soon they were all propping up the ramp differently and the marble dropped right in. “Now you know I’m a scientist,” the girl said to Geiken. (Full article here, with links to video of children at work.)

Later in the article, I introduce Beth van Meeteren, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa who started conducting research on Ramps & Pathways more than a decade ago. “I’d love to get this into more classrooms,” van Meeteren says. “It seems that only gifted classrooms are allowed this quality instruction. All children benefit.”

Source: The New America Foundation

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