University of Delaware
Toys and childhood are and always will be linked: you can't grow up without toys. They're your distractions, your companions, and – as we're increasingly growing to understand – your teachers.
A recent University of Delaware and Temple University study called "Deconstructing Building Blocks: Preschoolers’ Spatial Assembly Performance Relates to Early Mathematics Skills" digs into how three-year-olds of various socioeconomic levels play with one particular toy (Lego-like building blocks) to explore whether there's a connection between playing with blocks and learning math.
In a nutshell: yes. The report notes that: "Spatial skill independently predicted a significant amount of the variability in concurrent mathematics performance." Kids who were able to build block models that matched a sample model, in short, seemed to possess counting and measurement skills that paid off in terms of ability to count, add, and subtract. The study goes further, convincingly arguing a casual relationship: playing with blocks, in short, builds skills.
The study also found that despite the inexpensive nature of blocks, children from lower socioeconomic status (SES) families miss out on some of their benefits, in part because of a social push toward electronic toys and learning aids:
Blocks may not be a purchasing priority for low SES families when the marketplace is convincing parents that their children need more expensive electronic toys. The fact that low SES children were already worse at the age of 3 is an unfortunate harbinger given the relationship between spatial and mathematics skill. And the fact that these are low income children who are attending Head Start, a service designed to mitigate SES differences in development, only increases the concern for those not enrolled.
And although the study connected blocks with math, language plays a crucial role, too: