Spatial thinking has become an increasingly important ability for our contemporary information-based economy, particularly in recently and newly developed fields with advanced technologies. While spatial thinking is a key component in all fields of engineering and other fields that employ geographic information systems (GIS), mapping skills (Davis & Hyun, 2005; Liben & Downs, 1989), and architectural principles (Ness & Farenga, 2007), the subject has not played an important part in school curricula. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly necessary for teachers to identify and recognize children’s and older students’ spatial abilities. Naturalistic observation serves as a hotbed in this endeavor because it allows teachers, parents, and caretakers to observe spatial thinking attributes of children and adolescents as they construct structures with a variety of constructive play materials, particularly blocks, bricks, and planks. In our research, we have examined the scope of children’s block, brick, and plank constructions in terms of specific spatial categories that they exhibit during free play. To do this, we have analyzed specific cases of children engaged in block, brick, or plank play through the application of the spatial-geometric-architectural (SPAGAR) coding system (Ness & Farenga, 2007). We argue that these spatial categories that nearly all children possess in preschool form the underpinning of emergent technological development as they encounter topics in professionally related courses in middle school and high school. Our practical aim is to help teachers, parents, and caregivers gain a clearer understanding of children’s spatial propensities during block, brick, and plank play.

“What Are Blocks, Bricks, and Planks?” you might ask. These objects, what we call, visuo-spatial constructive play objects, form the basis of all constructive objects that children of all ages use in any kind of play environments. Blocks, commonly referred to as standard unit blocks, are so ubiquitous in schools that nearly everyone who encounters children or reminisces about his or her own childhood knows what they are.  Essentially, blocks are standard in that come in a variety of common shapes that all block sets include. The most common shapes are square-shaped unit blocks, double unit blocks, quadruple unit blocks, arches, cylindrical blocks, and various sized triangular blocks.  While they can be useful in promoting creativity,

The term “brick” is the generic name for plastic pieces, usually in the shape of rectangular solids, that snap together. Other names are much more common and are designated by popular company trademarks. These include Mega Bloks ™, KRE-O®, or Cobi®, and indeed the famous Legos™ brand.  Without question, children engaged in brick play demonstrate evidence of extremely advanced propensities in spatially related behaviors. The downside of bricks, however, is their constant sales branding that focuses on specific themes, many of which include famous superheroes, episodic suspense stories or trilogies, intergalactic dramas, city related themes, and the like. Such emphasis on themes requires children to follow scripts in the form of instructions for building. Unfortunately, scripting adversely affects the child’s ability to create structures and our ability to analyze children’s spatial propensities. To this end, the best bricks are the generic ones that are available…

Unlike blocks and bricks, planks are not so familiar. Despite their unfamiliarity among the public, planks are excellent constructive play materials for several reasons. First, the very fact that all planks are the same shape and structure make them suitable for creativity in construction. In other words, children who regularly play with generic, no frills objects that are non-theme related may enhance self-regulatory behaviors during constructive play and may have a higher likelihood to engage in creative tasks that involve synthesis and higher order thinking skills. Unlike blocks, which usually include at least eight types, and bricks, which come in a cornucopia of themes with even a greater number of shapes and styles, planks are unique in that each one is in a ratio of 1:3:15 centimeters. They can be stacked, used as posts and lintels, or can serve as foundations for larger structures. Second, planks are used by professional architects to serve as testing models prior to the development of blueprints. Third, planks are not sold in themed packages. That is, aside from the typical description that is included in the plank box, one will not find elaborate instructions for constructing objects with planks. They do not come with a preconceived script, that is, superhero themes or intergalactic themes do not play any role in the manufacturing of planks.