The inner and outer worlds of block play

Project author:

Project summary:

An observational study to discover whether 2 to 4 years olds are expressing their inner worlds through block play or exhibiting schema play.


This project explored children’s block play and to determine whether the current provision was meeting the children’s needs and enhancing communication development. It takes into account who was playing with the blocks, how they were playing and their level of wellbeing. This enquiry matters because some of the children had become disenfranchised from the block play area. Also, staff were increasingly supporting children with co-regulation within the block play area. My purpose in undertaking this project was to learn how children are expressing their inner worlds through block play and determine whether our block play area was inclusive.


We are a small specialist nursery that is part of a local charity that is working to improve mental health and wellbeing to enable positive change in the area. Children are referred by social care and health visitors because they have experienced high levels of Adverse Childhood Experiences or their families are already involved with the charity. Our children live within an IMD area that is ranked amongst the 10% most deprived areas in England.

The focus of the inquiry was within the 2-4 years old room, where 8 out of the 10 children have SEND and they all have delayed communication and language. We have developed a distinct block play area, to avoid children’s creations being knocked down accidentally as this has been a contentious issue. Our nursery has knowledgeable, attentive staff who understand “the importance of beginning where the learner is (Bruce, 2019, p.89) and the central importance of play.

I wanted to discover whether the children were involved in schematic play or expressing their inner worlds. In addition, I wondered if co-created improvements to the block play area would develop inclusive participation and boost communication and language.


During my initial observations, I used quantitative data that included the Leuven Scales of Wellbeing and Involvement (Laevers,1994) to gain a baseline and an  overview to identify areas for potential development. Then I used narrative observations to gain a deeper insight into their unhurried block play to collect qualitative data. I ensured that my narrative observations were sensitive to include the child’s voice – their gestures, their body language and the tone of their vocalisations/words.

Reviewing the data, I considered how the children played using Tina Bruce’s 12 features of play and the 7 Stages of Block Play (Johnson, 1933). I also chose to complete a timed sample observation to map children’s play in different areas of the room. In addition, I had informal conversations using the child’s form of communication to gain their thoughts about block play so they would be the heart of the positive changes.


Before commencing, I gained written consent from parents/guardians to observe their child so that all of the ten children in the 2–4 years old room could participate in the inquiry. I assured anonymity and confidentiality of all the children throughout the project. My main ethical considerations were the wellbeing and the safety of the children during my observations. Children’s consent was assumed with the child freely choosing to play in the block area with uninterrupted time. I remained sensitive to their emotional needs, whilst being mindful that my proximity may affect their play. For example, I stopped observing a child with neurodivergence when my proximity triggered agitated stimming. I respected their interpersonal zone and exited the area. Another, ethical consideration was the physical safety of the children due to trajectory play, disputes between children or a child becoming dysregulated. When necessary, I stopped observing and would facilitate the child to become regulated.

“Look! We’ve used all the blocks!”

shrieked the children enthusiastically in the new block area they had collectively created.


The baseline data indicated that there was a limited range of Bruce’s features of play. Evidence revealed that our block play area was not inclusive because a child with hypervigilance chose not to play with blocks and a child with neurodiversity was observed physically blocking another child from entering the area. The levels of wellbeing and involvement were generally low, and this seemed to negatively impact their block play and communication.

During one observation, a child invited me to join their play. When two more children entered the area, the initial child became anxious. At this moment, I noticed that the block play area may be too confined for multiple users so I used this opportunity to collect their perspectives. I wondered aloud, ‘How can we all play with the blocks?’. The initial child began to kick the shelving containing the blocks. I narrated the child actions aloud with pauses for processing time. The three children collectively began to push the shelving unit. They frequently paused and looked at the area then moved the unit again… Other children noticed and joined in the participatory action until they had relocated the shelving unit. They immediately began to play with the blocks across the newly opened space. This was a significant moment of ‘connectedness’ as they had cooperated, communicated and listened to each other. I observed an increase in collaborative play and symbolic play with children inviting others to join their play and consequently increased communication.

I noticed a child with neurodiversity trying to squeeze into a corner adjacent to the repositioned block shelving. With the child, I created a small nook with access to the blocks to create a ‘safe space’. The child happily continues to use this space to engage in their schema play. Timed mapping of the children with neurodiversity revealed they exhibited ‘repeatable patterns of organisational behaviour’ across their play. Bruce (1991)

I also observed children applying their block play skills in the real world. During a visit to a local gymnasium, a child used soft play blocks to build a ramp to reach the gymnastic bars saying “ it’s too wobbly, I need to make it… stable”.

An unexpected finding was the ‘exclusivity’ caused by the limited wall space to display photographs of the children’s block creations. To address this, we created a Block Play floorbook that includes photographs accompanied by the child’s narrative. The floorbook has been a meaningful way to share the outcomes of this project with its participants and shows the progress they have made in their play and communication.


In conclusion, Froebel’s concept of making the ‘inner outer’ and the ‘outer inner’ was evident within block play at our setting. However, the block play of children with neurodiversity appeared to be connected to their current play schemas. Observations revealed that for many, the child’s level of wellbeing was interconnected with their block play. Children were expressing their inner thoughts and feelings outwardly through their behaviour and their block constructions and destructions. Offering children the opportunity to develop the area has increased participation. Therefore, blocks are an open-ended resource that allows children to express their emotions externally. At our setting, block play has given children agency for their metaphorical and symbolic representations that is helping them to make sense of their emotions and their world.

Moving forward, the children have expressed that they want ‘more blocks’ so our block journey will continue to develop. We will also share the benefits of block play with families during stay and play sessions.

Research implications

To be completed

Practitioner enquiry

To be completed

Leadership learning

To be completed

Author and role

To be completed

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Natalie Morgan
    Natalie Morgan
    24 Mar 2024 at 2:49 pm

    I enjoyed reading this project as you have really thought about the children from beginning to end. You listened to the children and responded to what they were needing. The use of the children’s voice and actions throughout set a picture of the environment surrounding them and how they were feeling.

    Report comment

Add a comment