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Showcase July 2012: The Ultimate Block Party: Connecting Spatial Learning to Play

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The Ultimate Block Party: Connecting Spatial Learning to Play

Deena Skolnick Weisberg, Jenn Zosh, Kelly Fisher, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta M. Golinkoff


UBP logoOn October 2, 2010, over 50,000 people attended the first Ultimate Block Party event, held in New York City’s Central Park. With the help Melissa Hargitay & Legosof a wide range of scientists, community partners, corporate leaders, children’s museums, nonprofit groups, volunteers, and even celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker and Mariska Hargitay, our research team explored how playful learning impacts various aspects of child development, including spatial thinking. Since then, thousands more families in Baltimore and Toronto have witnessed the science of learning first hand, with many more cities to come.

The Ultimate Block Party initiative seeks to transform parental attitudes about how children learn by demonstrating that play can foster important skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines, spatial thinking, literacy, and the arts. Recognizing that the general public is largely unaware of explicit connections between play and learning, we developed the Ultimate Block Party to create unique opportunities for families to directly experience the science of learning in action.

The New York Ultimate Block Party included 28 activities spanning eight play domains: adventure, construction, physical activity, creativity, the arts, make-believe, technology, and language. All activities were designed to appeal to a wide demographic audience (e.g., people of different ages, interests, learning abilities including learning disabilities, and physical abilities). Importantly, all activities were based on the learning sciences literature. For example, the spatial learning activities were grounded in studies show that block and puzzle play promote spatial understanding and mathematics achievement (e.g., Ginsburg, 2006; Ginsburg, Lee, & Boyd, 2008; Levine, Ratliff, Huttenlocher, & Cannon, 2012; Newcombe, 2010; Wolfgang, Stannard, & Jones, 2001). Further, research by SILC investigators demonstrates that children challenged to build a tall, sturdy tower become mini-engineers who think spatially (Gentner, Levine, Dhillon & Poltermann, 2009).

To accompany the exhibits, we produced a freely distributed Ultimate Block Party Playbook, full of useful information about the science behind the play. It listed both scientific and popular resources for more information on the science of learning and is available on our website (

Construction Play: One Route to Spatial Learning

Kids love to know how things are made. When given the chance to build things, like block towers, children learn about a boy holding legosshapes, space, patterns, and even mathematics. Here we highlight just two of the many events at the Ultimate Block Party that were based on the research on spatial thinking: The Lego Extravaganza and the Skyscraper Challenge.

Lego Extravaganza (sponsored by Lego): This exhibit was filled with 500,000 Lego blocks, all of the same color. Families had an opportunity to build an original design by themselves, to become part of a team of builders, or to work with a master builder at the exhibit. To create their structures, children needed to rotate pieces, fit them tSkyscraper Challengeogether, and describe them using spatial language because color could not be used as a cue. (See here for video:

Skyscraper Challenge (sponsored by NSF’s Science of Learning Centers and in collaboration with the Chicago Children’s Museum): At this station, children designed their own skyscraper, enhancing their understanding of the science, engineering, art, and technology behind what keeps the world’s tallest buildings standing. Using a variety of materials that resembled a large plastic Erector Set, children were encouraged to build the tallest skyscraper they could while exploring their knowledge of physics. After constructing their tower, children were asked if it wobbles, and learned that those structures built with a cross-brace for support were much stronger than those built without one.

Assessing the Outcomes

The goal of the Ultimate Block Party was to convey the power of play and the science of learning to the community at large. Results are in from the New York Block Party, which attracted a diverse range of people from all socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities, and which had the participation of all of the Science of Learning Centers. In addition to the large number of people of attended Block Parties across the three cities, it is estimated that our print and digital media have additionally reached over 4.5 million people. Highlights include a full-page story in The New York Times, a cover story in the Christian Science Monitor, and a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

So did the Ultimate Block Party work to connect play and spatial thinking? The short answer is yes. Parents and guardians attending the New York Block Party were asked if they thought any of the activities they saw at the event would help children learn how objects fit together or how to move and find their way through their surroundings. Of the 258 interviewees, 200 provided an answer to the question, the majority (93.0%) said yes (see Figure). This suggests that parents and guardians made the connection between the activities and spatial learning. More impressively, when we asked them to list which activities they thought were related to spatial thinking, they tended to include Lego Extravaganza and the Skyscraper Challenge. They also told us why they thought these exhibits were critical to spatial thinking, mentioning that children were learning “how things fit together,” “how one part fits into the next,” and “how objects relate to each other.”

Figure Piechart

Figure: Percentage of parents or guardians who thought the activities at the Ultimate Block Party would help children learn how objects fit together or how to move and find their way through their surroundings.

The Ultimate Block Party represents a new form of scientific outreach that has the potential to transform parents’ attitudes towards learning in ways that are consistent with the scientific evidence. As the Science of Learning begins to take translational science seriously, we should consider not only how learning occurs in schools, but also in more informal environments like museums, libraries, public parks and living rooms.


  • ♦ Gentner, D., Levine, S., Dhillon, S., & Poltermann, A. (2009). Using structural alignment to facilitate learning of spatial concepts in an informal setting. In B. Kokinov, K. Holyoak & D. Gentner (Eds.), Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Analogy (pp. 175-182). NBU Press, Sofia, Bulgaria.
  • ♦ Ginsburg, H. P. (2006). Mathematical play and playful mathematics: A guide for early education. In D. Singer, R. M. Golinkoff, & K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Play = learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth (pp. 145–68). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • ♦ Ginsburg, H. P., Lee, J. S., & Boyd, J. S. (2008). Mathematics education for young children: What it is and how to promote it. SRCD Social Policy Report, XXII.
  • ♦ Levine, S. C., Ratliff, K. R., Huttenlocher, J., & Cannon, J. (2012). Early puzzle play: A predictor of preschoolers’ spatial transformation skill. Developmental Psychology, 48, 530–542.
  • ♦ Newcombe, N. (2010). Picture this: Increasing math and science learning by improving spatial thinking. American Educator, Summer, 29–43.
  • ♦ Wolfgang, C. H., Stannard, L. L., & Jones, I. (2001). Block play performance among preschoolers as a predictor of later school achievement in mathematics. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 15, 173–180.
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