Babies, toddlers and preschoolers don’t do homework. Instead of “work” at home, they play at home, as well as in child care centers, children’s museums and outside. As they play, they learn new vocabulary and other language skills, as well as becoming able to imagine, to cooperate, and much more. Lately, developmental scientists have been finding out more about how specific toys help children develop specific, important thinking skills, discovering that play with blocks and puzzles is particularly important for strengthening spatial thinking. This kind of thought is central to human intelligence and related to math and other STEM disciplines.
When children play with blocks, they develop stronger skills at analyzing and building patterns as well as visualizing spatial transformations. These skills lay the foundation, in turn, for better learning of mathematics, perhaps because math is about finding patterns and understanding relations.
An additional bonus of block play is that parents naturally use spatial words as they talk to their children about what they are building, and learning spatial words gives a further boost to the children’s spatial thinking.
Puzzle play is also a great way to lay a spatial foundation. Like block play, it develops spatial skills that are known to be important in learning math. And like block play, it engages parents in talking to their children about spatial relationships. In addition, parents often gesture about how to hold and turn puzzle pieces, which shows children naturally and concretely how they can manipulate shapes in their mind, and helps children understand novel spatial words.