A Century of Unit Blocks Celebrated in Brazil's Gazeta do Povo

Caroline Pratt’s influence on progressive education is global, as was seen this summer in an article published by Gazeta do Povo (Gazette of the People). “Century Game” explores the successful use of unit blocks in early education from a Brazilian viewpoint, and sites the visionary legacy of Pratt in bringing unit blocks into the classroom.

From the article:
“Caroline argued that the blocks were the most adaptable material for learning and that they were not restricted to objects for free play, but materials that nurtured the learning of shapes, sizes, scales and aesthetics.”
Gazeta do Povo is the largest newspaper in Brazil’s Paraná State, and one of the most important in Brazil. The article reached nearly 40,000 readers on August 13, 2013.
The article, in Portuguese, can be found on Gazeta do Povo’s website.
Below is an English translation. Read it, and then visit the website for some great pictures.

By Adriana Czelusniak

They don't emit sound, they don't have little lights flashing or any high technology involved. Yet, wooden blocks, now celebrating their 100th year, can still be found at most large toy stores and are not leaving the shelves any time soon. Although it is not possible to date when the first child used pieces of wood to play, it was in 1913 that the American educator Caroline Pratt created a set of pieces of wood and began to defend it as an important tool in early childhood education. (See box.)

Thoughts about child development and the school environment have not remained the same over the last century, but surveys have confirmed that Caroline Pratt was right: A good toy should be an incentive rather than a product. Blocks fulfill this role.

Studies in the 1940s showed that blocks helped children absorb concepts and improve grades in math. In 2001, a study that followed 37 children from preschool through high school confirmed that finding. More recent studies have extended the benefits, proving that blocks can even aid in language acquisition.

According to occupational therapist Ursula Marianne Simons, master in clinical psychology and professor at the University of Tuiuti, wooden blocks are still an important part of early childhood and all schools of early education should have them. In the beginning stages, she explains, the child carries the materials. Then he or she begins to build simple structures. Eventually, the child starts making them more complex by adding elements of everyday life, such as dolls, animals and trees, dramatizing his/her inner world.

Role play is an important game at this age, because it allows the child to experience a reality that is not yet fully, conceptually understood. "The blocks allow the child to increase this role play, giving room for an outflow of creativity and feelings while allowing physical experiments. Figuring out which piece can stand up, which can maintain the balance or how high a tower can be constructed in a concrete way is critical at this age, "says Ursula.

In addition to blocks, stumps taken out of the garden are also part of the play equipment at the pre-school Cordao Dourado. Made of wood, unfinished, blocks are better to stimulate fantasy than any plastic toy. "The wood enhances touch, thermal sense and the notion of weight and balance by being stackable. Children love not only stacking and building, but also using the blocks in various games of fantasy and imagination as," says Margaret Jaster Flores, School Director and occupational therapist.

Box 1

The child is who makes the material a toy

Fans of wooden blocks, the children of occupational therapist and neuroscience postgraduate Angelica Varejao have the toys at home and at school. When they are more relaxed, Otto ,5 years old, and Joao, 2, utilize the blocks for different scenarios. "Until 7 years of age, there is a more creative phase and a simple toy allows children to develop games that come from their minds.  My children have modern toys, but the building blocks are what help in this phase of imagination and intuition, " she says.
The children attend a Waldorf school. Angelica praises the philosophy of this model of education. "There's the moment when the child is more retrospective and plays with the blocks, for example, and when they are more outgoing and they jump rope and climb trees. This pedagogy is about natural movement. "

A few years after the appearance of the wooden blocks came the Waldorf teaching method, conceived by Austrian Rudolf Steiner. There are over a thousand Waldorf schools in the world, and besides valuing the potential of wooden blocks, each makes use of other organic materials such as cloth, string or clay.

Box 2

The legacy of Caroline Pratt is not just pieces of wood

Known as the creator of the wooden blocks, the educator Caroline Pratt defended the right of children to attend kindergarten in a time when it was common for a small child to be home schooled. She also took a stand against the repressive teaching of the time, calling attention to the importance of stimulation of child development.

"Education is not an end in itself, but the first step in a development that should continue throughout life. In role play, the child is no longer just a spectator but a part of the busy world of adults. When playing, he is practicing to take his place in this world and is being educated,” said the teacher, in her book "I Learn from Children,” published in 1948 with a new edition planned for the coming year.


The wooden blocks always appeared as the "flagship" at the school she founded,  City and Country, which also prepares to celebrate its 100th birthday in New York City this year. Caroline argued that the blocks were the most adaptable material for learning and that they were not restricted to objects for free play, but materials that nurtured the learning of shapes, sizes, scales and aesthetics.

City and Country School

146 W 13th Street New York, NY 10011
Phone: 212.242.7802