Playing with Blocks May Improve Language Development in Toddlers, New Study Finds

Playing with toy blocks may lead to improved language development in young children, according to a new study reported in the October 2007 issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.


Playing with toy blocks may lead to improved language development in young children, according to a new study reported in the October 2007 issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Early childhood is a critical period in the development of young minds. The newborn brain triples in size between birth and age 2. Long-standing assumptions have been that certain activities during this critical period may promote optimal development while others may hinder it, and development of memory, impulse control and language in particular may be helped by imaginative play.

Lead researcher Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH, of the Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the University of Washington conducted this pilot study involving 175 toddlers 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, such as sort by color. The other group of 87 children did not receive any blocks until after conclusion of the study. Parents, who were told only that they were participating in a study of how children use time, completed a questionnaire about basic demographic information at the beginning of the study. They also tracked their child’s activities in a diary during two 24-hour periods during the trial. Parents completed another questionnaire by phone 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.

The study found that distributing blocks was associated with significantly higher language scores in the sample of middle- and low-income children. On average, children who received blocks scored 15 percent higher on their language assessment than those who did not. These results suggest that playing with blocks may be effective in promoting language development. There was no difference found in attention scores between the two study groups.

“Playing together remains the best way parents can help foster their young children’s development,” said Dr. Christakis. “Our findings point to a pragmatic and fun way to improve language acquisition. Though many toy manufacturers claim their products improve children’s cognitive abilities, few such claims are substantiated by research.” This study comes on the heels of other studies by Dr. Christakis and peers showing that viewing media such as some television and baby DVDs marketed with unsubstantiated claims that they help development may, in fact, actually hinder ability to acquire language.

The research speculates that the distribution of toy blocks resulted in more block-play and this block playtime may be replacing other time spent that does not encourage language development. Television time may have also been replaced by block-play. Further study to corroborate these findings and explore whether attention capacity could likewise be significantly improved is suggested by this pilot research.

Research team partners included Frederick Zimmerman, PhD, and Michelle Garrison, PhD, both of Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the University of Washington. The study was funded by Mega Bloks, which provided research support and blocks used in the study, but did not participate in any data analysis.

For a downloadable color photo of Dr. Dimitri Christakis working with a toddler and blocks, please visit:
Photo Available for Download

About Seattle Children’s Research Institute

Located in downtown Seattle’s biotech corridor, Seattle Children’s Research Institute is pushing the boundaries of medical research to find cures for pediatric diseases and improve outcomes for children all over the world. Internationally recognized investigators and staff at the research institute are advancing new discoveries in cancer, genetics, immunology, pathology, infectious disease, injury prevention and bioethics, among others. As part of Seattle Children’s Hospital, the research institute brings together leading minds in pediatric research to provide patients with the best care possible. Seattle Children’s serves as the primary teaching, clinical and research site for the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, which consistently ranks as one of the best pediatric departments in the country. For more information, visit http://www.seattlechildrens.org/research.