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What is Construction Play? Benefits and Play Ideas

Construction play is an important part of a child’s healthy development.

Let’s take a look at some examples of construction play, the many benefits of constructing in early childhood, how you can encourage it at home and school, and some good construction toys your kids should play with.

What is Construction Play?

Construction play, also called constructive play or manipulative play, is the type of play a child engages in when manipulating objects or toys to construct or create something

The child explores the materials and objects around him and learns how to create intentionally with them.

Children learn so much while constructing that the focus should always be on the process, not the product. 

Construction play often leads to pretend play, as children bring their ideas to life in a physical form and then use them as part of a game of ‘acting out’ life scenarios.

why your child needs construction play pinterest image

Examples of Constructive Play

There are many forms that construction play can take – from the simple act of drawing a house all the way to building it with engineering toys. 

Blocks

The most common of the construction toys, blocks are a staple in every classroom and should be found in every home.

Children go through predictable stages of constructing and they need repeated exposure in order to reap all the wonderful benefits of block play.

Lego

Lego is another favourite among small children and is one of the traditional educational toys that is still popular.

Children build their own creations and develop their creativity as they join these little bricks together.

Manipulative Toys

Manipulatives such as magnetic tiles, tangrams, pattern blocks and maths cubes are a part of this kind of play.

preschooler building a house with cardboard boxes

Box Construction

This is one of the best types of play for home or school and doesn’t involve buying expensive toys.

Children build freely with boxes in various shapes and sizes and can surprise you with the creativity that goes into these.

I regularly had children creating incredible rockets, buildings and other structures in the classroom. 

All they need are some waste materials, tape, scissors and wood glue and they are set to go.

Construction Sets

Most kinds of toys with separate pieces that children have to join together are considered construction toys.

Some pieces click together, are magnetic, are screwed into each other, are linked together, etc.

Woodworking

Children saw, hammer away with nails, learn to fit nuts and bolts and work on awesome wooden creations as they build on their construction skills.

preschooler measuring foods to bake

Baking

Baking is an activity that is rich in learning experiences. Children not only get a chance to create with their hands, they also learn a host of early measuring skills.

Playdough and Clay

While playdough may be moulded and pressed purely for enjoyment, as children get older they learn that playdough can be manipulated into shapes and used to create representations of objects. 

A child can build a playdough house or dinosaur and this creation then becomes part of their pretend play.

Sand and Water Play

When children make sandcastles or cupcakes during sandplay, or measure out spoons of ‘leaf soup’ while playing with water, they are creating as part of their fantasy play.

Playing with sand and water is also a child’s first introduction to science concepts as they learn the properties of these substances and how they change form.

Adding objects to sand and water is a fun way to encourage loose parts play – an integral part of construction play.

Puzzles

Puzzles are also a form of construction play. Children take the pieces and fit and join them together to create a picture. There are many reasons children should build puzzles from an early age.

Drawing

Even drawing is a form of constructive play. Learning to draw a person, for example, involves using drawing tools to create forms on paper, with a purpose. 

What Age Does Construction Play Begin?

There are different stages of construction play but it begins as soon as toddlers start creating intentionally, at about two years of age.

There are also levels to their maturity and understanding of intentional building and creating.

Let’s take an example of building a tower. A 2-year-old may begin to start intentionally stacking blocks to make a tall ‘tower’ but is not yet trying to construct an actual building of a tower – she has learned this word by hearing an adult use it to describe her constructions. 

Her intention is to see if she can successfully stack them without the tower falling, and how many she can stack. Sometimes the intention is just to stack the blocks in order to knock them over.

An older child may decide to build an actual tower to keep a princess inside, complete with windows, a moat, a bridge, etc.

Constructive play is a developmental process which continues, and should be encouraged, for several years.

Benefits of Construction Play in Early Childhood

Here’s a brief look at just a few construction play benefits for children.

Cognitive Development

As children build and construct they plan, resolve, generalize, analyse and discriminate. This creative activity stimulates the brain in many ways, causing children to think and build new concepts.

child building a tower with blocks

Early Maths Skills

While playing with bricks and blocks, children build an understanding of early number concepts. They learn about:

  • The concept of order – this tower is taller than that one.
  • The concept of number – this tower has more/less blocks than that one.
  • The concept of sets – some bricks can be grouped by size and shape.
  • Basic addition and subtraction – if I add a brick then it becomes taller, if I take one away then it becomes shorter.
  • The concept of surface and volume – making a large outline of a house of blocks and standing inside it.
  • Geometric shapes – building with cubes, cylinders, rectangular and triangular prisms.

Language

One of the adult’s main roles when aiding constructive play is to encourage children to discuss what they are doing while playing and help develop their vocabulary.

This is one of the ways a child develops their early mathematical vocabulary, as well as building a rich general vocabulary. 

Social Skills

Construction is often an activity that children engage in together. It requires a lot of cooperation, consideration and joint planning to execute. 

It’s a wonderful opportunity for children to build their social skills while having fun and working towards a common goal.

Physical Development

Constructive play usually builds fine motor or gross motor skills, and often both.

Activities like drawing, cutting and pasting during box construction build fine motor coordination.

On the other hand, an activity such as playing with blocks builds the large muscles too as a child carries, sorts, piles and packs the blocks.

Creativity

Since this type of play is open-ended, it is a wonderful way to develop creativity during the early years.

Creating a fort with blankets has far more learning potential than playing with a store-bought tent, as does drawing freely, instead of using colouring-in books.

Problem Solving

There are so many problems being solved as children build and create that this type of play is one of the best for building problem-solving skills.

Children have to experiment to figure out how to make the sand firmer, how to hold the tent up and how to stop the door from falling off the house. 

child happy about his tower

Confidence

The act of creating something is good for a child’s confidence. 

A child who has persevered on a creation and can see a finished product, will feel a sense of pride and achievement. Feeling competent is important for confidence.

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Early Technology and Engineering Skills

As kids link and join pieces, especially in sets like these, they develop their early technology and engineering skills.

How to Encourage Constructive Play

Here are some tips to make sure your little ones are engaging and learning from this kind of play.

  • Let children choose their own toys and do not over-organize their play. The more independent it is – the more learning will happen.
  • Give age-appropriate toys that your child has success playing with and offer more complex toys later on.
  • Allow your child the freedom to make a mess and get dirty. Instructing children to stay clean or not dirty their clothes is unfair and not conducive to learning.
  • Store construction toys where they can be easily accessed – in neatly packed containers or on a low shelf. If materials are available and look inviting, children will play with them.
  • Describe childrens’ creations in order to provide the correct vocabulary and build their language skills.
  • Make a safe learning environment at home or school by providing rules – such as no throwing blocks, waiting for someone to play with something until you have a turn, etc.
  • Involve your child in making a batch of homemade playdough (this is a playdough recipe without cream of tartar)

Construction Play Toys

These are some of the best kinds of construction play resources that you may want to keep at home or in your classroom. These are just a few examples.

Wooden Blocks

If you buy your child just one set of blocks, let it be a good quality set of large wooden blocks. 

This kind of set will last and will provide years of educational fun.

Lego

With so many sets of Lego available on the market, it can be confusing to choose and also tempting to buy sets of Lego with predetermined models to follow (such as a ‘build a helicopter’ set).

The best Lego to buy is a set of Classic Lego (like this one) or a set of larger Lego Duplo bricks for toddlers (here’s a good set).

preschooler playing with a wooden puzzle

Puzzles

Wooden puzzles are of the best quality and are better for building. They should also have a wooden frame to fit into (like these ones).

When offering your child puzzles, always start with ones that he has success building. Then, slowly increase the difficulty (smaller and more pieces). If a child is struggling through a puzzle, the activity becomes frustrating and does not foster confidence. 

Manipulatives

Let kids play with other types of manipulatives, such as magnetic tiles (this is a good set) and tangrams (like these) to encourage creative, open-ended play.

Engineering and Construction Sets

There are many sets on the market with pieces that link, join, screw together or are magnetic.

Here’s a good example of a set that will provide hours of problem solving and skill building.

Woodworking Set

Let your kids develop their carpenting skills (and fine motor coordination) with this cool wooden tool set.

These are just a few ideas to incorporate at home or in your teaching. Read more about the different types of play


Would you like a year of done-for-you, ten-minute activities to teach your 3-5-year-old through play? Get your copy of the Learning Through Play Activity Pack for only $27.

Activity Pack for preschoolers

Sources: 

Natanson, J. 1998. Learning Through Play: A parent’s guide to the first five years. Tafelberg Publishers Limited: Cape Town.

Hendrick, H. 1990. Total Learning: Developmental Curriculum for the Young Child. Third Edition. Macmillan Publishing Company: New York.

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