The use of Block Play as symbolic representation

Research practitioner:

Senior practitioner:

Project summary:

A study to observe the ways in which children interact in block play with a focus on symbolic makers and scaffolding between stages.


This project looked at block play addressing both staff knowledge and understanding alongside the provision offered to our children.  We looked at key messages around block play which challenged staff thinking and identified training from introduction to practical sessions.

Coming out of COVID-19 restrictions our block play could naturally develop with the removal of pods [closed groups].  The purpose of developing the area would enhance both staff development and create a welcoming space without hidden biases.  Our key message supported Froebel’s messages of “the importance of children using blocks… with adults supporting and joining in appropriately” (Liebschner 1992 cited in Bruce 12012).

An interesting project, taking the understanding of blocks and block play to that deeper level. [AL1]


The project was identified as a development in the nursery.  Our block play area was reduced to small baskets for the pod dynamics during COVID-19 guidelines.  This limited creativity, play and opportunities for symbolic play.

Key literature challenges adults to know when to interact and when to step back.  This ‘freedom with guidance’ became a focus during our training.  Truly listening to children is important and we had to develop our ‘children’s voice’ to ensure we could build a whole picture knowing that one size doesn’t fit all children.

Staff knowledge around block play was very limited and a questionnaire to staff identified a need for training around block play and practical sessions on what each development stage would look like.   Training would take place before the development of the area to ensure that staff could scaffold learning, identify stages of play and observe effectively to record learning.  Once staff were confident around the development benefits of block play we would start to look at symbolic representation and how this linked effectively with block play.  Froebel gives status through “the emphasis on pretending and creating other worlds” Bruce (2012: 69) and nothing gives the opportunity more than block play.

Initially a plan was developed to ensure that staff training and block play area development could happen side by side.  This would allow a holistic approach to the project.

To begin with the keyworker and Early Years Depute leading the project carried out observations. Our own development of observations meaning more than watching allowed us to investigate what Bruce means by “observe, support and extend” (2012). We also carried out child consultation. These observations concluded that:

  • It was not a welcoming area therefore not used
  • Resources were not presented in an inviting way
  • Blocks had pictures for tidying up but no name tags to encourage correct terminology
  • There were no additional resources to challenge thinking or scaffold learning.

These directed our steps for development.

Secondly, the Early Years Depute carried out a questionnaire with staff to gauge their knowledge and understanding.  This identified that staff were aware of stages of block play but did not know them in detail.   Bruce (2012) talks about staff knowing the potential of the material in order to develop creativity and imagination.  Our staff training would include practical and theory sessions in order to learn by doing.

Our staff will develop a welcoming block play area, where resources are presented to reflect connectedness to engage our learnings in their thoughts, feelings and actions.

“The laws of gravity prescribe the ways blocks can be combined, but the builder can generate an infinite number of combinations. Johnson highlighted ‘the importance of offering children material by means of which they may review, rehearse and play out their past experiences’ (1972:189)”

Froebel Trust Block Play pamphlet, 2020


Our nursery are on a block play journey and continually adapting to change to ensure the best opportunities for our learners.

Our block play area is in the centre of our nursery and is one of the biggest environments we have created.  We designed a horseshoe shape with a mixture of shelving units that allowed creativity but containment in a room without any corners.  We purchased units of different heights which allowed children to build on top as well as starting from the floor.  Our purchases of new blocks including the transport items have transformed our children’s play.  Staff are engaging with their learning, knowing the stages to scaffold as appropriate and use the correct terminology.   Our children are engaging with the area, and we have observed stages 5 and 6 in play.  The responses from our children have been mostly positive and we have reacted to children following consultations.  Two of our pre-school children BS and EL who has shown great skill in the area can name most of the blocks and can discuss their stage 6 block development. Our pre-schoolers are scaffolding the learning of our younger children which is just lovely to watch.

We had the welcomed opportunity to carry out Froebel Block Play training during an in-service day which allowed all staff to attend and share their fears and wishes for the area.  Coinciding with the removal of the pods we were also able to develop our block play area after the training to capture staff’s ideas straight away with enthusiasm.  Staff became familiar with the terminology of the blocks labelling the new shelves and putting away the blocks. The staff were encouraged to look at the stages of block play referring to the PowerPoint and poster to see what it looks like in practice.  Froebel asks us to step into the world with the child and this presented a chance for us to be creative and symbolic as we would wish for them.  We added gradually books, clipboard, writing materials and pictures to enhance the play when we recognised children were ready.

Our biggest challenges included an increase in accidents, and children knocking down other children’s creations.  As a staff team we discussed how we could encourage our children to be safer in their play without adding constraints.  We agreed to purchase hard hats which would help with a small number of the accidents.  In addition we would close the area if staffing did not allow someone to be nearby or in the area .There would still be the opportunity to engage with the smaller baskets of blocks during this time. We would monitor for 4 weeks to see if any impact was recorded.  Our second challenge focused on behaviours of children in our nursery.  This is our next step for development.  Social justice and inclusion are essential for us to ensure we are equipped to hear all children equally.


Our journey with block play will continue to grow and flourish with our children.  We have created a welcoming area we are proud of but have already identified our next steps for growth.  We plan to photograph the children for each stage of block play and talk about their pictures.  This will be displayed on the units and in our Block Play SWAY. The next step in consultation is how we can ensure risky play in the area.  Our symbolic representation continues to develop to ensure that both children and adults know what this looks like.  Our overall lesson is that creativity in children representing their own ideas need support from their environment and an adult.

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?

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