The use of building bricks and blocks starts at about the end of the child’s first year and this interest may persist for many years if the material available is versatile and provided in sufficient quantity. For babies bricks need to be a sensible size and weight; coloured bricks are often found more interesting than polished plain ones. At first each brick is regarded as a separate object in its own right and is used for handling, sucking, banging and sometimes throwing. A good deal of information about its physical properties and attributes are learned. It will later be seen as part of a set so that it can be used for matching colours and for the building-up, knocking-downwhich every baby loves. As skill develops he can build higher. As knowledge develops he will topple his pile by deliberately pulling out the bottom brick. The struggle to bridge gaps, build staircases, enclose spaces, to push a long line of bricks, can all take place with the same material because its very simplicity allows for versa-tility. It is a very interesting exercise to give adults a set of these baby bricks to with and ask them to write down what they think a young child can learn from them (it is also significant that the list which results from just thinking is much smaller than that which results from actually handling the bricks).
These baby bricks will need to be added to during the second year. The H. G. Wells type of bricks based on a rectangular module allow for interesting building and for children to absorb a good deal of information about related shapes, sizes and pro-portions at the same time. Since they are interesting in shape there is every reason for these to have a natural rather than a coloured finish. Later still, larger and heavier solid wooden bricks and perhaps very large hollow wooden bricks are useful. The main problem about providing a graduated series of sets of bricks in sufficient quantities to satisfy children who use them well is the expense. Good quality, well-designed and -finished wooden bricks are expensive. Economy measures which lead to an insufficient quantity of poor quality bricks only waste money.
There are other new shapes for bricks and some are produced in modern materials. One new shape produced some years ago was a bridge-shaped brick made of wood and carefully designed to interlock in every possible way. Because they were large a box of twelve proved a viable set and provided for activities other than just building because of this extra factor of locking together. There have been many imitations and variations on this design carried out in smaller sizes and in different materials. Somehow these later versions, though cheaper, easier to store and provided in larger sets, have never been as useful or as attractive to children as the early ones. As happens with every other type ofmaterial it is necessary to find the right combination of material, size, function and design to suit the age of the children most likely to use them.
Other new building materials include outsize polythene stack-ing bricks, and a similar shape is produced in expanded poly-styrene. There are also some outsize blocks made from plastic foam. Their size makes them attractive and the lack of weight may mean they are more suitable for handicapped children than wooden ones but most children do little more than build high and knock down. These too lack that extra-interest factor which is so vital.
Many nursery groups are disappointed in the quality of the brick play that goes on there, often because of a lack of sufficient good material. Another factor which may have been ignored is the need for sufficient space. Children should not suffer from the attentions of the younger child who delights in kicking down, or whose clumsiness leads him to interfere accidentally with what older children have achieved – simply because this building is too near another activity. Building may not progress if the time allowed is too limited. If there can be a progression from day to day, encouraged by leaving out the bricks from one session to another, so that children start where they left off, this too is a help. In playgroups which have a young average age group there are no older children to complete complicated, imaginative buildings and younger children lose out on the-by-watching element of progression.
Construction sets have been designed for every age and stage in wood, metal and plastic. There are three important features to bear in mind when choosing them. Is the necessary linking or joining mechanism satisfactory? If the pieces do not fit properly (that is, easily but firmly so that the construction stays put until deliberately taken apart), then the set is useless. Is it produced in suitable size, material and sufficient quantity for the ability of the children most likely to be able to use it? A complicated system of linking and joining more likely to be within the ability of a five-year-old is useless for a two-year-old even if it is scaled up in size. If the set consists of too many different units they may each be provided in insufficient quantity for an imaginative child to use it in a manner the designer had not foreseen. Thirdly, some sets such ~.s Lego and its imitations and variations provide for an end product which bears some relation to real objects. Others such as Tinkertoy allow for more fantasy during the building. One type may suit a child better than the other. The ideal situation would be to have a set of each type.
In nursery groups a decision often has to be made as to whether to buy more of a set they already have or to use what money there is for a different set. Careful observation of what different children are doing with what is already provided is a good way to reach the decision. The right answer for one group may be wrong for another. A good basic selection for a nursery group or a home would be a Lego-type set, a set which provides rods as the linking element and a set which has nuts and bolts to join pieces together. For home sets in particular beware of giving as a present a construction set which shows a fabrication the size of Buckingham Palace on the lid and contains only enough pieces to build a dog kennel.
Both bricks and construction sets can be a source of extra noise in a nursery group. Providing a smooth rug or carpet for brick building at once damps some of the noise and makes for greater comfort for the children.