Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Block Play: the Creative Openness

 

Kalyanee, Vorapassu

 

Jordan and Tyler are building a spaceship. “Let’s make a spaceship with a trap door,” Jordan suggests. Large hollow blocks are placed vertically on end forming four walls leaving a small space inside. Jordan carefully crawls inside as Tyler places the ramp (a triangular shape block) on top. It is the trap door of the spaceship. Jordan asks Tyler to seal the front door, but Tyler refuses to do so. With a very firm and serious voice, he says, “But you need to breathe.” Jordan who is now inside the spaceship starts the engine and flies away.

Many, if not all, children enjoy playing with blocks. It appears that blocks are the toys that have been widely accepted as essential materials for pre-school aged children. What is interesting about blocks is that they are non-threatening for children who come upon them for the first time.

 

What is it like for a child to experience block play? What do children reveal through their block play? What is it about blocks that make them so interesting for children to play with? What does it tell us about childhood?What is the landscape of a child like? What differentiates a block from other toys? What can children make with blocks that they cannot with other toys? When children play with blocks, what happens?

 

What does the child see?

Joseph and Morgan are running into the block corner. Joseph, who is running in front, joyfully says, “Let’s make an airplane.” “Yes, it’s a good idea,” Morgan agrees. “Let’s make the body of the plane first. And we want a big plane,” Morgan suggests. Different types of blocks: square and rectangle are laid flat on the floor. Morgan and Joseph are very pleased as they discuss the plane.

 

After a while three more children, Blair, Tyler, and Ian enter the block center to join the building of the plane. Soon the solid body of the plane begins to emerge. Ian places a ramp on each side of the plane to form the wings, while Joseph places a ready-made steering wheel at the front of the plane. Morgan places a square block behind the steering wheel to form the driver’s seat. “The plane needs batteries. We’ll puts lots of batteries in, it’ll never run out of batteries,” Blair tells Tyler while they are putting small wooden cylinders inside the hollow “belly” of the plane. Ian finishes off the plane by adding the tail, two ramps sitting on end close together. The children beam as the plane is finally finished and ready for take off.

 

We see two children running into the block center. Then before they get to the blocks one of them says, “Let’s make a plane.” Does this expression, “Let’s make,” mean something? It seems that there is “naming.” Perhaps naming here is also seeing. But what does the child “see?” What is the child’s experience of “seeing” blocks? When a child sees blocks, does he/she see geometrical objects that can be described mathematically as squares, rectangles, so long, so wide, made of this, or made of that? No, not likely. Indeed in some sense, blocks can be anything and yet they are “no-thing.” But when a child says, “Let’s make a plane, or a truck, ” in the same instant, it happens in their mind and is expressed in their block play. Could it be that when a child says, “Let’s make . . .,” it appears that he/she sees an image. It is an image that is whole or perhaps nearly complete. In other words, when a child says, “Let’s make a plane,” he has a vision or an image of a plane. Joseph comes to the block corner with an image that he wants to create, to make concrete.

 

For some children the experience of seeing blocks could be like Joseph’s. However, for others the experience of seeing blocks can be different.

 

Olivia is playing in the block corner. She appears to be happy playing by herself. She hums a little tune as she casually sets four hollow blocks vertically in a form of an “L” shape. Then she adds more blocks until a structure with a thick solid “head” piece and a long “tail” begins to emerge. With the gasp of excitement, she says, “Look, it’s a train. I’m making a train!” Olivia is tremendously excited with what she has discovered. At that moment three other children, Chase, Jacob, and Dion join in with the building of the “train.”

 

What can we say about this block play? What is the experience of a child seeing blocks? It appears that Olivia enters the block corner with no specific image to realize. She sets the blocks haphazardly in an “L” shape. Then as it grows longer and longer, she announces, “It’s a train.” At that moment blocks are no longer pieces of wood. In the eyes of a child they become “parts.” Olivia “sees” parts. Each block becomes a part of a train.

 

In recalling his experiences of playing on the beach during his childhood, Jim, a friend of mine, says: “I remember putting the sand down and packing it down haphazardly until suddenly I “saw” a sand castle. To Jim, each bucket of sand that he put down was a “part.” Then there is a sudden relation, a connectedness. Suddenly Jim could see the parts fitting together and the wholeness of the sand castle begin to emerge. Similarly, Olivia sees “parts.” And yet within the haphazardness of the parts things begin to make sense. An image begins to take form: “It’s a train.” The form “speaks” to her, telling her what it wants to become. Thus when a child picks up blocks, he/she carries parts. Van Manen points out that when a child picks up the “hood” they carry it like a hood. Or in carrying a side piece, the child holds it like a side piece. In a sense, it is no longer just a block, it becomes an article of imagination: a hood, a door, or a bumper.

 

In the realm of art, we know that there is a difference between being artistically attuned and crafting. Let us imagine a child like Jim who goes to play on the beach, with no previously conceived idea or concept. As the child begins to put things together, he /she has no idea of what is going to happen. Then, because of his/her purposelessness, a form may “tell” the child what is to “be.” It is this that we call being artistically attuned. However, if a child goes to the beach with an idea, an image of what he/she wishes to create, a sand castle as it were, then we say that the child “crafts” the sand castle. He/she “crafts” his or her vision. Metaphorically speaking, the child has become a “craftsman.” Could we not say, then, that Joseph, who enters the block corner with a specific image in mind, has become a craftsman?

 

We need to distinguish between the moment when the child sees “parts,” and the moment when the parts “speak” to the child. In a sense, the child has a mission to complete his or her vision. If we look further at the word, “part.” we find these phrases such as “to be part of something,” and “seeing parts.” But parts of what? If a person sees only disjunct parts then he/she has no vision of the world. Similarly, play would lack meaning and coherence if the child could see only unconnected components.

 

Certainly we may have to move through the stage of randomly moving “parts” about. The stage of haphazardness, which may or may not be anything, all of a sudden becomes a vision, the “part” becomes a new creation. This is what we call being artistically inspired. At the same time, metaphorically, one becomes a craftsman if one builds his or her world according to his or her whole image.

 

A grown up sees a child creating a plane with blocks. We look at it with a smile, “How intriguing !” we may say. But how do adults see blocks? Do we see blocks the same way as the child does? Probably not. Let us imagine a grown up building a house with blocks, for example. Perhaps what we may see is the “best” representation of a house that the blocks can create: four walls with a door. Stiff, mechanical, dull, and unimaginative. Here is an example of how a grown-up “sees” blocks:

 

There is something unusual in the block center today. The blocks are all set up and ready for the children to play with. Blocks are set in two rows leaving a path up the middle. A ramp is near the end of the path and on the other side of the ramp, are three soft blocks (milk cartons). It is part of a project on block play, created by a student teacher.

 

There is something unusual about it. Stiff. Foreign to the children. None of them wants to go into the block center. Soon afterwards the teacher announces that the block center is open. Jenna, Stefan, Bradley, Juliano, and Mandi walk slowly over to the block center, but they do not walk right in and play with blocks like they usually do. Instead they gather around at one corner. The student teacher has a remote control truck and begins to show the children how to use the remote control. He then explains to the children the aim of this block play: The truck has to go between, and over the arranged blocks and finally hit one one of the three soft blocks at the end of the path. The children take turns at trying to “play.” There is no sound of joy or laughter. Many give up in the middle of the game. Their faces show frustration for they are trying hard to master the “toy truck” and the block obstacle course.

 

What can we say about this incident? Is this block play? Certainly not. Adults seem to use blocks in their limited physical sense. What they need to do is unlearn what a block is. This is why adults become clumsy with blocks and do not know how to “play” with them. It is a child’s ability to “see” that gives the blocks “life.”

 

Openness

What is it about blocks that is not shared by other toys? Is there something that sets them apart or makes them different from other toys?

 

The power of blocks is that blocks have complete openness-total ambiguity. Blocks are the most indeterminate toy that can become the determinate thing. In other words, blocks can change from something completely open to something closed. When a child looks at a block, very quickly the openness can become “something” (a bumper, a handle, a seat and so on), it can turn itself into something by the child’s “seeing.”

 

Jordan is entering the block center. A radiant smile is shining in his eyes as he skips and jumps inside the room. Almost everyday Jordan plays at the block center. For him the block area is the best place in the daycare center. Jordan often tells his teachers and his friends that he is the greatest block builder. Inside the block center, Jenna and Meghan are sitting on the pile of blocks talking about their new shoes. “Jenna, are you playing house, are you?” Jordan invites Jenna to join his play. But Jenna does not show any sign of interest, she is too busy talking to Meghan. “Well get off the blocks then I’ll make a motorcycle,” Jordan says to the two girls and he begins to build a motorcycle while the two girls look on.

 

Slowly the “motorcycle” begins to emerge. The body has three layers formed by two long hollow blocks placed on top of one another, a small half sized block is placed on top to form the saddle. The handle of the motorcycle is created by two small blocks placed vertically on top of one another. Jordan gives the final touch to the motorcycle by placing a ramp (a triangular shape block) at the rear. This creates a completeness to his motorcycle. Jordan is indeed delighted as he sits on the motor cycle to test it. The height of the handle is just right for his arms, the saddle is also a perfect height for his legs.

 

Bradley comes to the block center and begins to build a motor cycle next to Jordan’s. But his motorcycle is not very comfortable to sit on so Jordan helps him build a motorcycle just like the one that he has just made. As soon as they finish building their motorcycles Jordan asks Jenna to be the baby and she rides with Bradley, her brother. Jordan asks Meghan to be the mother and she rides with him because he is the father. Seeing that the passenger needs a seat, Jordan adds one more block to the saddle of each motorcycle. Soon the two motorcycles begin to roar, “Vroom,” Jordan and Bradley make the sound of the motorcycle and before long the two motorcycles take off.

 

The speed of the two bikes becomes higher and higher, but then the speed decreases and Jordan stops his motorcycle as they are approaching the traffic lights. He says, “It’s a red light.” The motorcycles takes off again, but then he says, “I need some gas.” Jordan gets off and puts some gas in the gas tank at the side. He makes the pouring sound of the gas. He then takes the two big bottles from the table next to the motor cycle, one filled with red colored water and the other filled with green colored water. The green one he imagines to be the spare gas. He puts it in the hollow of the bottom part of the handle. The red bottle is soft drink, it is kept in the middle compartment. The journey on the motorcycle continues. It becomes even more interesting and fun. The children are very happy. They laugh and smile along the way. Then the two motorcycles stop again, this time to do some shopping. Jordan gets off his motorcycle, he walks to Jenna, the baby and lifts her off the seat.

 

Chantel enters the block corner to join the trip. The children are delighted to have her. Then Jordan says, “Do you want to be a sister?” “No, a kitty,” Chantel replies and jumps onto the back of the motorcycle. Jordan notices that the kitty is not comfortable sitting on the ramp at the rear of the motorcycle so he replaces it with a square block. Meanwhile, Meghan comes back from shopping. She has two tickets (two pieces of paper) in her hand. As she puts them away inside the hollow of the driver’s seat, she says, “These are the tickets to Disney Land.” Meghan now sits on the driver’s seat. She wants to drive the motorcycle. But Jordan firmly says, “No, you cannot drive. I have the key with me.” Jordan shows the “key,” (a yellow stir stick), to Meghan. “I need to drive too,” she begs. But Jordan firmly says, “No.” Although Meghan is pouting, she quietly accepts, and moves to her seat.

 

The play becomes even more intense as the trip on the motorcycle continues. The children stop along the way to buy more things. The motorcycle is loaded. There is a can of hair spray (a small cylinder block), a bottle of medicine (a small block), two tickets to Disney Land, a bottle of apple juice and grape juice (bottles filled with yellow and blue colored water). The second compartment of the motor cycle is filled with two big bottles of soft drink. Chantel adds a blue cup to the very bottom part of the motorcycle. Meghan adds a telephone, a cake (an empty pan), and a tea kettle.

 

How intriguing to see such joy and aliveness! What does this children’s play tell us about blocks? As we carefully look at block play there is already an essence in some sense that blocks assume the openness. Blocks can change from some thing to something. Blocks can be anything; they have openness. What is fascinating about blocks is that when a child looks at them very quickly the openness can become “something.” The complete openness of blocks allows new things to emerge. The children constantly change and add things. As illustrated in this block play we can see that in the openness, there is a space to walk in, , to fill, and to co-create. The openness allows changes and newness to emerge in the play world. In other words, there is always something new, something different happening. The play experience is rich and exciting. The power of openness provides an opening and an invitation to enter. Openness “allows” the child’s imagination to become alive and dynamic.

 

When we talk about blocks in some ways we talk about toys in general because blocks are “making” toys. It is very interesting, however, that very few toys are like blocks. Many toys tend to have a definite and finite sense and limit the child’s imagination. A ball, for example, can it be other things? Indeed it can bounce, it can roll back and forth. A ball can be made into a cannon ball, but still it is a ball, nothing more. In a sense, a ball already has a meaning, a prescribed meaning, a determination. It is object specific-a prescribed form. However, blocks can be anything. Many toys seem to have this prescribed nature. Another example is the train set:

It is quite early when Jordan and Stefan arrive at the daycare. They rush to the block center and begin to build a castle. Then Jordan says, “I’m Batman and you’re are my dog, you’re Batdoggy, Okay?” Jordan is soon engrossed with the building of the castle.

Jia is entering the door of the daycare center. He jumps and bounces as he enters. His movements, his eyes and his voice all express excitement. “Look what I got Jordan, a train.” It can move. It’s for show and tell. Jia shows the train engine to Jordan. Jordan and Stefan stop building, leaving the unfinished castle behind, and rush over to see the new toy. Soon children from other centers start gathering around Jia. There is a gasp of excitement. Their hands, legs, their whole bodies are restless. They are anxious to play with the new toy. Jordan is the first one to play with the train. The moving train excites him. There is an on-off switch too, Jordan is checking it out. He turns it on and lets it crawl along the carpeted floor. But soon it tips on its side. Jordan picks it up and stands it on the floor. But once more it tips on its side. The train needs a track! One of the teachers then brings in a box full of wooden train track, which the children quickly assemble. Unfortunately, the train track is too wide for the train. The children soon loose interest. Sadly they give up, leaving the train behind.

 

In the same way as a ball, the train set also has a fixed image and meaning. The train set possesses a definite sense, not only in its shape but also in terms of the “play space.” Indeed the children are fascinated by its movement, but then quickly lose interest because the train’s play perspective is limited to the tracks. Isn’t this in some way suggestive of the space or room to play? The train needs a track-a prescribed space. The children cannot play with it unless there is a track. There is limitation. However, the blocks can be played with in any open space.

 

Let us now look at Lego, a kind of toy that share close similarity to the blocks, and yet they are quite different from blocks. Jay Mullin (1984) argues that Lego are bureaucratic because the only thing that children can do is put them together the way they are meant to be just like jig-saw puzzles. Mullin maintains that jig-saw puzzles and Lego are similar in that they are “collections of interlocking pieces [and] are no different from preformed environments. They are simply preformed environments which happen to have been taken apart; the child is given the responsibility for putting the pieces back together again” (p. 273). Neuschutz (1982) describes these specific moments:

Look at Anna when she builds with Lego: she knows that as soon as it snaps they are put together. So she builds quickly, and, in a sense, carelessly. Her hand repeats the same motion again and again. Anna does not have to consider whether this piece can attach to that one once she has learned to recognize the two of them. She is “locked-in” to the understanding that the piece can be pressed down this way or that. And she knows it will fall off if she tries to put it on upside down or on its side. ( p. 39)

Thus Lego is a kind of toy that exploits the power of blocks. The weakness of Lego is that it is structured. Often times they are pieces that are prestructured forms such as an airplane, a car and so forth. They are to be made into a “preformed environment” as mentioned by Mullin. In a sense, Lego are made into “bureaucratic things”-children only “consume.” Further, children imitate and they become “miniature bureaucrats” (Mullin, 1984). They become people who are “contracted” to build according to the “specification” and are no longer really “playing” as in the original sense of blocks. Thus the nature of Lego defeats its own power-it defeats the power of blocks.

 

It is not surprising why children seem to get bored with their toys quite quickly despite the number and variety of toys that they have. We cannot understand why the children do not want to play with them. Are we giving our children the right kind of toys?

 

When Jim was young, he used to live on a farm. Near the farm there was a pond, which he called the “Frog Pond.” The Frog Pond was like a paradise to him. At the pond, he always played with a piece of board, or sometimes a stack of boards. He would use them for different purposes, such as the walls of a fort, or a canoe or sometimes a gun. To Jim the boards spoke to him about their lives. It was such a wonderful time for him. However, when he moved to the city and he started getting toys, he found that his play changed. One time his father gave him a set of carpentry tools. There was a little hammer, a pair of pliers, and a saw. He began to get into trouble when he started to saw the legs of the kitchen table or when he pounded the nails into the walls. Perhaps this incident speaks to us of the notion of “childish” and “childlike.” When Jim plays with his carpentry tools inside the house, it is childish. But when he plays with the boards at the Frog Pond it is “childlike.” There is a sense of wonder. Just as when a child plays with blocks. The child wonders what the block can be. There is a sense of wonderment.

 

Thus it is openness that makes blocks different from other toys or play. Blocks can be anything, this is the strength that other toys do not have. Blocks allow the child to live in a different world, to make his/her world, to create a world, and furthermore to see something as something else. In that sense, blocks are even more powerful than water play or sand play because there are still limitations on them. Blocks can even be water or sand. And so as the children put blocks on the floor, they may say, “This is the water, there’s the boat. “Don’t step in the water!” Where as water is water, it cannot be other things. In that sense blocks are even more powerful. Power means openness.

 

Trying On Possible Experiences

As children create, their imaginations are alive, vibrant, and fully operative. The fear of the unknown vanishes. Children are seriously and joyously embarking on a journey of exploration and discovery . (Alexander, 1984, p. 478)

The portrait of a child playing with blocks is a fascinating phenomena. The room vibrates with sound and movement. “Brue, brue, brue,” “Vroom, vroom,” we hear the child make the sound of a car , a spaceship, a motorcycle, or an airplane.The child “becomes” the driver of a vehicle that he/she makes. What a child creates becomes alive. To the children it does not “sit,” but becomes an object of “life” with the dynamic throb. The object comes alive in the sound and the actions that permeates the play. We also see different kinds of relationships emerging in block play: a kitten and her owner, brothers and sisters, or sometimes a mother cat and her baby. In other words, block play allows children to “try on” an experience-to become someone or something:

 

Chantel, a bright-eyed child, is playing by herself in the block center. She is making a crib simply by setting blocks on end, around the table. The space beneath the table becomes the crib. Chantel beams as she lines the bottom of the crib with a blanket from a big box. Dustin runs into the block area, he watches Chantel with interest. Then he says, “Can I be a baby?” Chantel looks at him with a smile and says, “No, be a cat, a baby cat.”

 

Within a second the two children slip into a different world. Chantel opens the door letting Dustin crawl inside the crib. Dustin (the kitten) lies down for a while to take a nap, but soon he awakes and begins to cry, “Meow, meow. . . .” His crying becomes louder and louder. Chantel (the mother cat) is very worried. She rushes to the crib where her baby is crying. She stoops to look inside and says, “Do you want apple juice, honey?” Her voice is kind and gentle. The kitten nods. The mother cat takes a small bottle of yellow dyed water from a hollow block and gives it to her baby. The kitten takes it and drinks it. He is now happy. Then the mother cat gently says, “Are you going to let me give you some medicine, honey?” Of course, the kitten is not very pleased to hear the word “medicine.” He shakes his head and crawls to the other end of the crib . Then the mother cat tries to encourage her baby to go to sleep. However, it becomes a battle. Seeing her baby refuse to go to sleep, the mother cat then lets the kitten crawl outside. The kitten is happy. The mother cat is very proud of her kitten. There is something very special about her expressions: maternal, warm, and caring as she looks at her kitten who is kneeling beside her.

 

At that moment the kitten jumps rather aggressively on her, as if to hurt her, but being a mother who dearly loves her child she says, “Oh! He jumped on me to remind me that he needed medicine.” Of course, the kitten meows loudly and shakes his head to tell the mother cat that he does not want to take the medicine. He quickly crawls away. The mother cat follows him and leads him back to the crib. She opens the door of the crib and the kitten crawls inside. He lies down for a while and then begins to cry, “Meow, meow.” This time the mother cat crawls inside the crib with her baby then she sighs and softly says to herself, “Had to spank him because he wants me to sleep with him.” Although she says that she would like to spank her child, the mother cat does not do so. Soon the kitten becomes even more active. He kicks the side of the crib and he even kicks his mother. The mother cat tries to calm down her baby, she grabs his legs and tries to stroke his hair. There is patience in her gesture. She looks at him affectionately and softly says, “Need to do my school work. Daddy is mad at Baby cause he does not want to go to sleep. He is a wiggly baby. He wiggles all the time.”

 

Chantel’s play certainly brings a smile to our faces. The feelings of joy, warmth, and happiness arise in us. Chantel’s block play resonates a great deal of a mother who is kind, gentle, and patient. She delves into the child’s everyday world. But what do we see in this block play? It appears that once a crib is made, the play does not stop there, but continues to grow, and blossom. There is continuity. Like a vehicle, the crib takes two children into another world of being-they are “trying on” the “experience” of mother and child.

 

In other words, once when a child has created a “world” now he/she actually lives in that world. What does it mean to live in that world? Children have an opportunity to play “parts,” to become something or someone such as a pilot, a kitten, a mother, or even to negotiate being a driver: “I’m the driver because I’m bigger than you are.” “I’m the driver, I’m the boss.” “We all are bosses, so we take turns.” Block play allows roles, it allows children to assume identities -to be someone or something. In a sense, that possible world makes also possible relationships and possible experiences.

 

However, as grown-ups we may perceive this experience of a child “becoming something” as only fantasy. But if we are going to call it fantasy play perhaps we need to carefully consider what we mean by “fantasy.” Do we really know what it means? As grown-ups we already have determinate meanings, and tend to make a distinction between “unreal ” and “real,” “fantasy world” and “real” world. Is this really the way it is for the child? Aren’t we assuming something already? For young children this experience of “playing part” may be real, not fantasy. If we take a close look at what children say, for example, when they ask, “Who’s gonna be a kitten?” “Who’s gonna be Batman?” “I’m the mother. You’re the smallest you’re the baby.” “I’m your sister.” and so on, does it mean something when children use the word, “be”? Could it be that when a young girl “plays” mother, she becomes a mother, or when a child “plays,” kitten, he/she “becomes” a kitten. This calls to mind an incident when Jordan and Jenna played ” a kitty cat and her owner.” Jordan gave Jenna, the kitten, some milk to drink, but instead of lapping up milk like a cat, Jenna lifted the bowl and drank from it. Jordan was very upset. He could not accept it. His voice was very serious and he exclaimed loudly, “No, that’s not the way the kittens eat. It’s like this.” Jordan knelt down and showed Jenna the “right” way a kitten eats and drinks. While some grown-ups see this experience of “trying on experience” as only “pretend,” a child may see it as “real.” In other words, this is the lived experiencing. Children live the experience that absorbs them.

 

At times we may find that children move from one “world” to another with ease. But what allows this experience to occur in childhood? Could it be that a child’s world is the world of openness, which allows room for changes? Van Manen points out that for the child the world is so open and it is so easily changeable. It is so many worlds that it is not the matter of fantasy so much as this is this and or it is that. Thus, van Manen, further points out that for children a chair could be a space to lean on, to hang on, to kneel on and so forth, but for an adult it is only one purpose-a thing to sit on. In other words, what van Manen has stated is that grown-ups are “locked into” the world of fixed meanings, but for children things have not yet been clearly defined and structured, particularly in the child’s world of play. “Through play we see how the things in this world need not have fixed meanings. That which in the “open sense-making” is a pencil now suddenly is a bridge, a road block, a soldier, or a house” (Langeveld, 1984, p. 216).

 

What does this notion of “trying on possible experiences” reveal to us as parents and pedagouges? The way children learn; learning by doing perhaps. Barrs (1984) aptly calls this quality of being as “knowing by becoming.” It is a kind of “knowing” that one needs to “enter” into the “core” of that which one wants to understand. Through block play, children enter life, allowing them to experience the endless evolving ways of seeing and feeling the world around them. It is interesting, however, that this quality of being, “knowing by becoming,” is not restricted to children, and it is not foreign to many poets. Quoting Rilke, Bachelard (1969) writes:

If you want to achieve the existence of a tree,

Invest it with inner space, this space

That has its being in you. Surround it with compulsions,

It knows no bounds, and only really becomes a tree (p. 200)

 

Creating Space Out Of Space

As we delve deeper into children’s block play, we come to know that this kind of play involves spatiality. When children create a truck, a camping van, or a crib, for example, they have created a new space. Thus in block play children create space out of space. What is the nature of this space? What is it like?

 

Creating An Open Space

Jordan, an energetic four-year-old, is cheerfully announcing that he is making a truck. Five blocks (a long rectangle and four half size) are placed flat on the floor to form a rectangle and three blocks are placed on top creating a single stair-like shape. The upper section becomes the seat for the driver and the passengers. Jordan invites other children to share the ride. Delighted, Meghan, Chantel, and Jenna accept the invitation. Meghan walks to the van with a tray filled with “food” (small styrofoam squares), she puts it inside the hollow of the block, she says, “We need food, it’s gonna be a long trip.” Joy shines on the children’s faces as the truck takes off.

 

It appears that the space created is a one dimensional plane, an open space. A simplistic space that allows timeless creativity that within a second can change to something else. This new space can be a plane, a boat, truck, and so on. A space that is versatile as it can be sat on, stood on, laid on and can expand or contract to accommodate any number of players. The space may appear simple and open, however, it may be very complex, complete in the child’s imagination.

 

Inside-Outside

After finishing their snack, four children: Aurora, Dion, Tyler, and Andrew run to the block center to play. They begin to take the wooden blocks from the shelf and stack them vertically against the wall. There is a sound of laughter and conversation as they run back and forth to the shelf. “Let’s use all the blocks, Here’s a big one.” Soon after a big square is formed. With joy Aurora says, “It’s gonna be a camping van.” In the middle the children leave a big space so that all them can sit down. Soon the children are rearranging the blocks and trying to make it even better. Aurora is stooping down at one side of the camper while Andrew places a ramp in front to form the driver seat and a square block to create the steering wheel. Dion and Tyler are checking the rear of the camping van.

 

As I watch the children build the camping van, I am intrigued. The camping van appears to be well proportioned. The high back and the lower sides with the solid side facing outward gives the space a solid secure feeling. The front of the vehicle is lower and the hollow of the blocks face forward giving a lighter feeling and the sense of openness. Heidegger’s (1977) notion of “dwelling, thinking, and building” may describe the “evolution of space.” In other words, children do not merely place the blocks down haphazardly. Every block has a meaning and purpose.

 

However, the building and rearranging of the camping van continues:

 

After awhile Ann runs to the block center from the reading center, she says,”I’m visiting you guys. I’m your guest.” Aurora stands up and expands the side of the camping van so that there is some room for Ann. All of the children climb inside the van except for the Andrew. He says, “I’m the driver.” Aurora says, “The driver goes to the very front.” Then she adds, “The baby goes to the back.” Dion wants to be the baby, he moves to the back of the van. Andrew sits in the driver’s seat, but he does not feel comfortable. He adds another block to the steering wheel, and he sets one more block vertically next to him. Finally the camping van is completed and ready to go.

 

When the children add walls to the camping van, they create an “inside” and “outside” space. It appears that associated with this space are “roles.” What does it mean when the child says, “The driver goes to the front, the baby goes to the back?” Does it mean that children associate space with roles? Does space assume a role? Another example of this is as follows:

 

Four girls, Leighanne, Kimberly, Lindsay, and Courtney are playing in the block corner. Courtney, who is the smallest child is chosen to be the baby sister. It is in the morning and the mother has to go to work. The two elder sisters are asked to look after the baby. They agree to build a house to keep the baby in so that they can play freely. Soon a house begins to emerge. It appears to be a simple house in the form of a square. The sisters put the baby inside the house and she goes to sleep. Meanwhile the two sisters go off and play. Before long, the baby wakes up and begins to cry. The sisters rush back to the house. They look very worried and they try to comfort her by giving her a toy. The baby takes it in her hand, and she goes back to sleep.

 

Here the walls of the house have also created the “inside” and “outside” space. The inside space has created a certain space and a certain mode of being for Lindsay. Here she is “restricted within a house”- a barrier to be a baby. In some ways, the space has roles associated with it.

 

Creating An Enclosed Space

Let us now look at a different type of space that children create in their block play. This time the child creates an “inner world” and seals off the outside world:

 

Chantel is engrossed in building a crib from the space beneath the table. To Chantel the space beneath the table is a fascinating area for this is not the first time that she transforms this space into a crib. She begins to set medium sized blocks on end around the table. Then she seals the whole table with long blocks leaving one end partially covered as a door which she can open, to crawl in and out. When this is done the “crib” looks like a small hut without windows. Chantel smiles, she is very pleased with what she has made. Then she crawls inside the crib and lies down on the soft blanket with which she has lined the bottom of the crib. She begins to hum a little tune to herself as she slowly rolls the edge of the blanket in her right hand. Chantel is utterly relaxed and comfortable in her little world.

 

Children marvel at a secret place. Will Chantel’s fascination with the world of a secret place come alive in her block play? It appears so. Like a hermit in his hut, Chantel closes herself off from the outside world. What makes a child have this desire to do so? A need to be open to oneself perhaps. Langeveld (1983) points out that children need a secret place-a space to hide so that the experience of peace and contentment is possible. Similarly Bachelard (1984) states that, “every inch of secluded space we like to hide or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude of the imagination” (p. 136). In some ways, Chantel’s “crib”-the enclosed space beneath the table has become her sanctuary-a world-outside the world. Here in this space, a child is at peace, totally relaxed, thus it is a place to rest. When a child is in an enclosed space, the child is permitted a new open attentiveness to life of his personal world, a world which includes inner and outer life, a world therefore in which both possibilities meet” ( Langeveld, 1984, p. 14).

 

As we delve deeper into the child’s desire to shield herself, we perhaps are faced with these questions: What does “close” mean to a child? Do children have to “close” off the outer world before they can be “open” in their own world? Is it possible then that children need to set up a barrier so that they can open themselves up to a different world?

 

Watching a child create an enclosed space for herself, in some ways reveals to us children’s need for space. Chantel’s experience with this particular kind of space confirms that not all children experience space in the same way. Chantel’s creating of a crib, “speaks” personally to this child’s needs and desire for quietude in her life. Children need a space as Langeveld (1983) calls “a-coming-to oneself.” Children need a space of quiet wonder, a space that gives time to reflect, to daydream of other possibilities.

Given a sense of the secret, children need to retire into secret, to corner their selves, to hide in their selves, to feel nestled in their privacy. They need a version of themselves confined in themselves, only seen and found by themselves. They need a secret place to huddle close to their secret dreaming. . . of dreams dreamt only by themselves, dreaming .( Lewis,1979, p. 16)

 

Making-Unmaking

In the moment of creation, children are making and remaking the world in their hopeful, hateful, anguished, joyous, and wondrous images. (Alexander, 1984, p. 478)

As we ponder the child’s experience of “making” in block play, we come to realize that there is “naming.” The moment when the child runs into the room and says, “Let’s make a truck,” or “Let’s make a castle,” or “I’m going to make a plane,” in some ways, there is “naming.” To name is to bring forth an object into the context of the mind. Thus to name then is to bring “that” near-to bring it into “being.” Gusdorf (1965) states: “To name is to call into existence, to draw out from nothingness Naming establishes a right to existence” (pp. 38-39). Similarly, van Manen (1986) expresses that “Naming something is getting to know what that thing really is, what it is in its whatness and thatness” (p.38). Naming gives rise to an image-creating the concrete-ness in children’s landscape of images, giving enormous imaginative possibilities. In some ways, naming is like an evoking or a starting point. In its openness, a breath of freshness is brought into the movement of the child’s thinking and imagining. It is an invitation to the landscape of creation if you like.

 

When the “naming” has been brought into being, the children move into the landscape of creating. They begin carrying, stacking blocks “making” them into various shapes: an airplane, a truck, a van and many others. It appears, however, that for some children the “making” experience may not flow continuously, they need to pause, to reflect, to be in silence in order to gather ideas.

 

A group of boys, Joseph, Morgan, Blair, Tyler, and Ian are making an airplane. All agree that they will begin by building the body of the plane. Soon the body of the plane is partially formed. But the boys can not really decide on how to make the plane. Many suggestions and ideas are given “let’s put the wing here.” How about the passengers sit right there.” The conversation goes on but the group cannot agree. While other children expand the body of the plane, Tyler stops and sits on the body of the plane, and quietly looks at a picture book of airplanes. Suddenly there is silence, a pause, the building of a plane comes to a halt. Everyone gathers around Tyler. Blair is standing on the left beside Tyler with two blocks in his hands. Joseph is kneeling on the right side pushing himself on two blocks while looking at the book. At the front part of the plane Morgan and Ian are standing, Morgan has a block in one hand, he too is looking at the picture book with interest. Ian seems to be even more serious, putting hand on hip. looking at the pictures as each page is being flipped through. Then Ian says, “Let’s make a Tontord (Concord) you guys.” Blair is delighted and says, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” Tyler flips through the book, looking for the picture of the Concord. They finally agree and the making of the plane continues.

 

In making, there is silence, a pause for gathering one’s thoughts or the gleaning of ideas. Here when we talk about silence we do not mean silence as opposed to noise. It is perhaps like the silence within the speaking world. Spurling (1977) speaks of silence in the speaking world by saying that: “The silence that precedes and surrounds speech is not void, but a silence with a promise of speech, a silence pregnant with meaning, like a pause in a conversation or a gap between each ring of the telephone” (51). In a sense, it is the kind of silence that precedes the beginning-to move on to the next dimension. Children need a silent pause, a “time out” between making, to prod, to inquire and to gather thoughts and ideas about making, just as we adults do.

 

Like play in general, there is evidence that in block play, children rebuild an object over and over again. During the period of two months that I observed children’s block play I noticed that a group of boys, Morgan, Joseph, Ian and Blair, made an airplane nearly everyday. Indeed there were differences in the planes from day to day, however, what I have found to be interesting is that children repeat the “making” of a plane without becoming bored. Chantel’s building of a crib is another example. She finds the space beneath the table a fascinating area and repeatedly uses the area to make a crib or sometimes a bed for “a kitty.”

 

What makes children repeat or recreate the same thing over and over again? The need to gain a better understanding of that space perhaps. Is it a parallel situation to children rereading the same book or listening to the same story time and time again? By re-listening or rereading the same story children get an opportunity to “listen.” Is it then the same way as when they build the same thing over and over again? Perhaps in the experience of “repeating,” children are able to “touch,” to “see” to “absorb” their ideas. Role playing is another experience that is sometimes repeated. Chantel is a good example of this.

 

It came to my attention that Chantel enjoys the role of a mother cat who is kind, loving, and giving. Her joy of being a mother cat intrigued me, thus one day I shared this observation with Chantel’s teacher. Delightedly, her teacher said that she had observed the same thing. She added that Chantel’s mother who has “feminist views” was very concerned and worried knowing that Chantel favorite role is being a mother. Thus Chantel was often reminded by her mother that there are other interesting roles to play. If we probe further, we may find that when a child wants to become or emulate someone, that person has a special relationship with the child, or in some way deeply touches the child’s life?

 

Thus when children repeat the actions of making or becoming, it is a means of probing and investigating their inner selves. This could be a child’s way of deepening his /her understanding.

 

The final process of block play is the “unmaking.” It is not merely a mechanical act of putting away blocks in their proper location. It is a continuing of play in itself. What is it like then for children to put blocks away? What do they do? Do they put blocks away in the same way as grown-ups do? What happens then? What do they do in the “unmaking?”

 

In the day care, the light is flickering on and off, the signal which tells the children that it is a clean up time. The teachers then tell the children to put away things and tidy up. The atmosphere in the room suddenly changes, there is a different mood and tone. There is noise from the movement and talking as children begin to put things away.

 

In the block center, some blocks are set up vertically to form a castle for Batman and his dog, “Bat Doggy”. There is a chair made for “Batman” next to his castle and other blocks and toys strewn around the floor. Bradley runs to the block center with a stick in his hand, he pushes the chair made for Batman. As he pushes, the blocks tumble. He says, “Pooff, poof, I have power, I’ll tear the whole city.” Since Bradley is the only child putting blocks away, the teacher asks other children who played in the block area to help clean up. Jordan, Stefan, Juliano, and Dustin soon join Bradley in cleaning up. Jordan pushes the castle down, as he says, “It’s a tornado!” Juliano picks up one block and carries it to the shelf. Now Jordan is kneeling on a medium sized block and with another medium sized block in his hands, the two blocks now becomes a motor cycle. “Beep, beep, beep,” he is riding on his “motorcycle” to the the shelf where the blocks are kept. Juliano picks up a small wooden stick and says, “I’m smoking, I’m a grown up now I can smoke,” Juliano laughs as he puts the wooden stick in one of the boxes. Then there is a sound of an airplane as Stefan picks up a block, and flies it around and finally lands his plane on the shelf. The whole area is full of sounds and motion. As the teacher urges them to hurry, the children giggle and laugh, the play continues. Sometimes they just pick up the blocks and put them on the shelf, but then the next block becomes a car or a plane for them. The portrait of children in the “unmaking” is fun, not serious, just play. In other words, in the “unmaking,” children loiter just as when they tell us a story. Children loiter over details, they meander, Lewis (1979). When children put away blocks, children loiter along, just as a river: no hurry to get to the end. Watching the children in the “unmaking” process is like watching a meandering river, quick movement is interspersed with slow movement.

The river goes zigzag, takes a long route, sometimes flows fast and sometimes goes very lazy. And there are different moods and different climates and different lands which it passes through. And it takes sudden turns. It goes in a dancing way : not confined, .It goes in freedom. Then each step has its own beauty . (Rajneesh, 1981, p.54)

 

 

References

Alexander, R. (1984). What are children doing when they create? Language Arts, 61(5), 478-479.

Bachelard, G. (1969). The poetics of space. Toronto: Beacon Press.

Barrs, M. (1985). Knowing by becoming. In M. Meek (Ed.), Changing English: Essays for Harold Rosen. London: Heinemann.

Gusdorf, G. (1986). Speaking. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1977). Building, dwelling, thinking. In Basic writings. New York: Harper & Row.

Langeveld, M. (1984). How does the child experience the world of things? Phenomenology + Pedagogy, 2(3), 215-223.

Langeveld, M. (1983). The stillness of the secret place. Phenomenology + Pedagogy, 1(1), 11-17.

Lewis, R. (1979). Towards beginnings: Part II. Parabola: Myth and the quest for meaning, 4(4), 15-16.

Lewis, R. (1979). Towards beginnings: A collaboration of a father/teacher and his children in an exploration of the nature of childhood. Parabola: Myth and the quest for meaning, 4(3), 20-27.

Mullin, J. (1984). Toy. Phenomenology + Pedagogy, 1(3), 268- 284.

Rajneesh, B. (1981). The white lotus. Bombay: Electrographic Industries, Ltd.

Neuschutz, K. (1982). The doll book. New York: Larson Publications, Inc.

Spurling, L. (1977). Phenomenology and the social world. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

van Manen, M. (1986). The tone of teaching. Toronto: Scholastic Inc.