Blocks and bricks and beams (and logs and buckyballs and other toys that build stuff), oh, my!

It’s not hard to imagine that construction toys (one in particular represented plenty by LEGO fanatic Chris Pirillo right here on LockerGnome) offer a cognitive benefit to the formative (and even post-formative) minds that engage in their use. So whether you (or your child) are into LEGO, Erector Sets, Tinkertoy, Lincoln Logs, magnet balls, or just those plain old school blocks with the big letters of the alphabet on them, you’ll find this to be some encouraging news.

A team of researchers from Temple University’s Infant Lab in Philadelphia have quantified the benefit to developing spatial vocabulary that playing with construction toys (in this case, the tried and true blocks) can instill. With adult supervision, children hear words like “around” and “over” and “through” in reference to such toys, and are able to visualize what such words mean by interacting with tangible, three-dimensional objects and observing how they relate to each other.

Construction Toys (Like LEGO) Effective in Spatial Language DevelopmentNora Newcombe, co-director of Temple’s Infant Lab, says: “There is evidence that variations in the spatial language young children hear, which directs their attention to important aspects of the spatial environment, may be one of the mechanisms that contribute to differences in spatial ability.”

So the construction toys themselves are very helpful in providing a proper educational foundation, but the important variable in their efficacy to teaching spatial language is in parental interaction. After all, a meaningful vocabulary doesn’t just occur to a child — they must be introduced to words and their meanings; construction toys help to flesh out these meanings in three dimensions. Developing a strong spatial vocabulary early in life helps children cope with the basic concepts of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines that they’ll need throughout their school years and beyond.

“This study gives parents news they can use. It shows that, rather than leaving kids alone with a preassembled activity, interactive play that draws out conversation is best at facilitating spatial development,” says Newcombe.

The team’s findings are detailed in Early Education for Spatial Intelligence: Why, What, and How, published in Mind, Brain and Education.