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Block Building, Caroline Pratt and open-ended materials

Recurring themes can alert us to what is really important in a career, so allow me to reminisce. When I became Teacher/Director of Chickpeas Childcare Cooperative in Brooklyn, in 1994, I was first introduced to the existence and possibilities of unit blocks. The previous Director, from City and Country School, had been deeply committed to the ideas of Caroline Pratt, and over her tenure, the little school (ages 2yrs 5mths to age 5) had accumulated a huge collection of the classic unit blocks, and they used the original names – Squaries, brickies, middlies, longies, triangles, etc. Cute as these names sound, they refer to the proportions of each – two squaries make a brickie; two brickies make a middlie, two middlies make a longy. There are also three half- brickies one split laterally and the other, corner to corner. The third is called a buttery, the size of a stick of butter; and there are even half-butteries; and don’t forget the cylinders in two diameters, fat and thin!

Caroline Pratt in her office at City and Country School, about 1942
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Since each year, half of the children aged out of Chickpeas, the other half became the bearers of the folklore and history of the group, teaching it to the new intakes – this time including me. I relied on them to initiate me into the rules of block play. It was stunning. Here were children, barely 3’s and 4’s, managing this vast array of blocks, creating complex constructions and then after about an hour and a half, everyone would sit in a circle and listen as each group of builders explained their work, and answered questions and comments. Was it always patient and attentive? No, but to an exceptional degree much seriousness was shown.

Then came the equally awesome clean-up. For each section of the shelves there was a child seated next to it and for each shape, one or two children UN-building the buildings, then stacking their assigned block shape into stacks of 3 and pushing them across the floor to the block 'shelver'. ‘Trains’ of these 3-high blocks could be made, so that the pushing was easier, and above all, none of the blocks needed to be lifted in the air or carried from place to place. The floor did all the work. Just as well when you think how little a kid is at 2 yrs 5mths!

Frustrating to see the random and dangerous way in which blocks are handled in classes where they are available, but have never been taught. First, there is the complete loss of the intrinsic learning in balancing, sorting, experiencing weight and proportion, physics, problem-solving and basic construction principles. No less important is the behavior of children who pick up blocks and carry them about at clean-up time. They get dropped on other kids, used as weapons, mixed up and thrown in the shelves unsorted, and also knocked down instead of un-built. Children who didn't make the building also either knock it down or take things from it that they happen to need, missing another great learning opportunity. “Once something becomes part of someone’s building, no-one else can take it.” And: “Don’t take out any blocks you don’t yet need, because a) you have to put them away again, and b) because it makes your workspace messy and unsafe.” Now tell me if there aren't about 20 valuable learning experiences wrapped up in this extremely enjoyable and rewarding activity!! And yet, as with every great tool – even bad block building areas are better than none – they ALWAYS yield autonomy, creativity, success and joy, and the open-ended possibilities are the keys to imagination..

I immediately fell in love with this great activity I was now appreciating for the first time, (even though I had seen unit blocks in other pre-K and K’s before this, including the school my son attended, The Neighborhood School, in the East Village, and at East Village Community School, where Roberta Valentine continued a vigorous block-building curriculum for as long as possible, based on the City and Country model.) But a lot of things were very new to me, only having changed careers in 1991. I began to study Caroline Pratt’s “I Learn From Children: Adventures in Progressive education”, (http://amzn.to/1gh9eCU) and I visited both City and Country School www.cityandcountry.org/ and Central Park East 1. http://www.centralparkeastone.org/ The latter, started by Debra Meier in 1974, had a huge block room where the constructions could be left up for a week at a time or more, and at City and Country, working with the 6’s and 7’s, they did the same, developing whole environments and communities over time. Chickpeas block area was also enormous, on the ground floor of St. Thomas Aquinas School then (not any more, sadly), with our own enclosed play yard. But we had to clean up each day so that the cots could be laid out for rest time. However, at that age, starting over anew each day was never a problem, and as children attended 3, 4 or 5 days, it wouldn't have worked well if the child who made the construction wasn't coming back for two days.

In addition to the focus on blocks, we also had art easels, dress-up /dramatic play, math manipulatives, a huge library that the children used independently, especially during rest time, and there was also a strong culture of writing and illustrating books, which occupied their own pride of place in the bookshelves. Unless the temperature was below 18 degrees, we also went outside every day, and had visiting music teachers and movement classes, usually provided by parents who were professionals, and took that on as their co-op “job”. And trips! Investigating the neighborhood was a central tenet of Caroline Pratt's Play School in 1911.

That was a thorough Pre-K experience! And this open-ended, exploration-based play has recurred through every phase of my teaching career. Tragically, it has been the eradication over time of any and all traces of excitement, creativity or empowerment from the school experience that has been most distressing as the “reformers” have taken hold with their drill and kill for the lower classes philosophy.

Join me in becoming a strong advocate for the use of block building to be fully implemented into the new plans for Universal, full –day Pre-K in NYC. Including, of course, staff development in the use and handling of the blocks!

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