School Literacy & Culture’s 2016 Gift Guide: Blocks for All Ages

Blocks: A Gift That Spans the Ages

Welcome to the 2016 SLC Holiday Gift Guide! We’re excited to share our top gift picks with you as you start your shopping treks either around the city or online. You’ll notice this year’s gift guide is organized differently than the last couple of years’. Rather than focus on gifts for one particular age group, we’ve decided instead to center our attention on one type of play and specific, developmentally appropriate materials to support the play throughout the early childhood years.

Block play is fundamental in the early years both in classrooms and at home. School Literacy and Culture so values block play that we have an entire workshop devoted to the topic (“The Building Blocks of Building Blocks”). Blocks make an appearance in nearly every presentation we do for teachers and parents alike, and this year we featured blocks and loose parts construction in our first annual fall conference, “The Critical Importance of Play.” Blocks, as you can see, is one of our very favorite topics! We believe they are integral to a young child’s development and, therefore, should be at the very top of your holiday shopping list.

Wondering what exactly blocks do for a young child and why they are essential for little ones? They’re versatile and purposeful. Block play stimulates learning in all domains of development: cognitive, intellectual, physical, social-emotional and language. Opportunities for hand-eye coordination, visual perception, spatial awareness and balance are provided as children explore with blocks. Not to mention blocks provide great occasion to explore math and science concepts, too. Maybe most importantly, block play stimulates young children’s imaginations which in turn inspires creativity, a skill that is oft undervalued in today’s classrooms. Our futures quite literally depend on the creative thinkers we are growing and building up in our homes and classrooms!

Blocks are a wise gift investment because they can grow with children. While we categorize our suggested gift picks below by age, children will play with any and all kinds of blocks no matter their age. In fact, some of the best learning opportunities happen when various types of blocks are combined. Imagine the possibilities when the giant Melissa & Doug Jumbo Cardboard Blocks (suggested for toddlers) come together on the same playroom floor as Tegu Blocks (suggested for preschool) or Dr. Drew’s Discovery Blocks (suggested for early elementary)!

Should you decide to invest in blocks for the young children in your life, you will observe their block play change over time. At first, young toddlers will love to push a block tower over again and again. Then they will begin to stack the blocks on their own and eventually they will begin creating structures used for purposeful play like castles, roadways, grocery stores and more. Fabulous additions for block play can be found online or in stores, like plastic animals or story characters. Add them to your child’s block baskets and work with them to create a zoo, a pet shop, a castle, whatever their minds can dream up! Now come on, let’s get shopping!

Happy holidays to all of you! We wish you a joyful season.

Block Suggestions for Infants and Toddlers (0 to 2 year olds):

  1. First Years Stacking Cups
  2. B. Toys Plastic Cube Blocks
  3. Jumbo Building Blocks
  4. Melissa & Doug Jumbo Cardboard Blocks
  5. LEGO Duplo Blocks

Block Suggestions for Preschoolers (3 & 4 year olds):

  1. Foam Blocks
  2. Battat Bristle Blocks
  3. Lincoln Logs
  4. Melissa & Doug Wooden Unit Blocks
  5. Tegu Blocks

Block Suggestions for Early Elementary (5 & 6 year olds):

  1. MagnaTiles
  2. Tree Blocks
  3. LEGO Classic Blocks
  4. Melissa & Doug Wooden Building Blocks
  5. Dr. Drew’s Discovery Blocks

Interested in viewing our past gift guides? Find them at the links below!

Authored by Jordan Khadam-Hir, Rice University School Literacy and Culture

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Program Feature: Music Moves Minds


Active participation in learning is crucial to education. In this world of ever increasingly virtual and often sedentary educational experiences, music and moving is more important than ever. Making music takes the mind and the body to a higher level of focus, engagement and joy. As children become less active, not only in learning but all areas of their lives, music offers a unique gift for the classroom. While we do not desire a return to the past, we also donʼt want to ignore or discard aspects of the past that were beneficial to our children and our society. One of the most powerful of those traditions was classroom music making – singing and dancing. These are activities that create a sense of community and wellbeing, strengthen emotional ties, aural comprehension and cooperative skills, and enhance language, mathematics, science and social studies. Singing coaxes language out of the most recalcitrant speaker and enhances the language skills of the fluent (Brandt, 2012). Making music brings to physical life basic arithmetic relationships; organized movement develops geometric and spatial awareness. Singing, dancing and playing percussion instruments are whole body activities that engage the childʼs mind and imagination. Making music encourages participation in learning and independent thinking; it develops self-discipline and advanced aural skills (Booth, 2013). If we are to go strongly into the future, our whole bodies must come with us. It is through the whole body and all the senses that children learn. The younger the child, the more essential it is that every part of the body and sensory system participate. Research has shown that making music is a biological mandate for the human species. That means everyone can do it! In Music Moves Minds, teachers will learn how to integrate singing, movement and simple instrument making into the classroom, so that their children can walk into the future with alertness, poise and a light heart. Register on our website:

Authored by Rachel Buchman, Lecturer of Music, Rice University Shepherd School of Music



Brandt, Gebrian, Slevc. Music and Early Language Acquisition. Frontiers in Psychology. September 11, 2012.

Booth, 2013. On Active Engagement in Learning.


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Program Feature: The Building Blocks of Building Blocks


Thanks to Friedrich Froebel and Caroline Pratt, blocks have been a part of early childhood classrooms for more than 150 years. Since the mid-1800’s, children have been playing with a material that hasn’t changed much; blocks have withstood the test of time. Used for many different purposes in the classroom, particularly construction play, blocks are struggling to maintain their presence in early childhood classrooms across the country as the stresses of standardized testing become more and more a part of our children’s daily routine (Miller & Almon 2009). Turning back the tide and providing the “necessary content through playful learning and provide(ing) time for the spontaneous free play that is so crucial to social emotional and academic growth” is the challenge presented to teachers in 2016 (Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Berk and Singer, 2009).

Block play supports children in a variety of areas of development and thus should be a universal material in the hands of every child, in every early childhood classroom. According to Rosanne Hansel, author of “Bringing Blocks to the Kindergarten Classroom,” “One of the most important features of blocks is that they are three-dimensional: they offer children ways to understand shape by exploring and manipulating them with their hands.” Children’s physical development is promoted in block play by offering opportunities for hand-eye coordination, visual perception, spatial awareness and balance.  Blocks also provide support of children’s cognitive development across the domains of language, literacy, science and math.

Join SLC this Wednesday, October 12th from 4-6 p.m. in a hands-on session and explore how block play impacts child and early literacy development. This presentation will also encourage teachers to become familiar with the stages of block play, learn ways to organize and manage a block center and explore ways to keep block play interesting throughout the school year. Register on our website:



Hansel, Rosanne Regan, “Bringing Blocks Back to the Kindergarten Classroom.” Young Children,  March 2015, pgs 44-51.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., R. Golinkoff, L. Berk, and D. Singer. 2009 A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool. Oxford University Press.

Miller, E., & J. Almon. 2009 Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School.  College Park, MD: The Alliance for Childhood.


Authored by Sharon Dworaczyk, Rice University’s School Literacy and Culture



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Program Feature: Eight Books Young Children Should Not Live Without


Parents often wonder if they are making the most of time spent with their children. One of the best ways a parent can spend time with their child is by reading aloud to or with them. However, with so many books on the market, we are hard-pressed to find quality children’s literature amidst the multitude of options.

As parents and teachers, our responsibility is to open a child’s world to a variety of genres’ of quality literature. An increased variety of texts expands children’s view of the world by fostering their imagination, developing critical thinking skills and improving social and emotional skills.

Exposing children to an assortment of books early on “helps them develop a broad perspective on the world around them” (Huffington Post, Canada, 2013). Reading the fantasy books about princesses like “The Paper Bag Princess” by Robert Munsch  and fairy tales like “Cinderella” is just as important as reading informational texts about “real world” royalty around the world. The more book variety children are exposed to the more their vocabulary will improve, their must-read book list will grow and basic critical thinking skills will be deepened.

“The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud—it’s the relationship winding between all three, bringing them together in easy harmony” (Fox, 2001). Join mentor teachers from School Literacy and Culture on Wednesday, September 14 to explore eight genres of quality children’s literature and discuss ways to create the spark for literature in children Mem Fox refers to using books at home with toddlers to first graders.

Learn more and register on our website:

Authored by Sharon Dworaczyk, Rice University School Literacy and Culture

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What is SLC Reading this Summer? Part 2

“Neuroscientists, biologists, psychologists, social scientists, and researchers from every point of the scientific compass now know that play is a profound biological process. It has evolved over eons in many animal species to promote survival. It shapes the brain and makes animals smarter and more adaptable. In higher animals, it fosters empathy and makes possible complex social groups. For us, play lies at the core of creativity and innovation. Of all animal species, humans are the biggest players of all. We are built to play and built through play.”

It might be time to head back to the classroom, but temperatures are still soaring so it’s summer as far as we’re concerned! Today we’re sharing with you our second feature in “What’s SLC Reading this Summer?” “Play” by Stuart Brown is a professional text that has recently made its home on our “favorites” bookshelf. Brown, a prominent physician, psychiatrist, researcher and founder of the National Institute for Play has written this book in an effort to make sure both children and adults incorporate play into their days. As a reader, it is important to note that Brown “practices what he preaches;” he works out of his office treehouse!

With snazzy chapter titles like, “The opposite of play is not work” and “A world at play,” readers are drawn into the author’s friendly rhetoric and made to feel like one is sitting down to have a warm cup of coffee with the author rather than read yet another professional text. A play enthusiast, Brown was reluctant to define play for a long time because it was so diverse. Sharing the story of his work with a group of Hewlett-Packard engineers he explained how he finally came around to defining the properties of play in an effort to help others understand what play is, and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t. He says there are seven properties of play, as follows:

  1. Apparently purposeless (done for its own sake)
  2. Voluntary
  3. Inherent attraction
  4. Freedom from time
  5. Diminished consciousness of self
  6. Improvisational potential
  7. Continuation desire

He goes onto describe each of the properties and why it is crucial in the description of play. He says, “Play is the vital essence of life. It is what makes life lively.” Play is absolutely critical in child development (so he supports us incorporating it into our classrooms – yahoo!), but it is also absolutely critical for adults. All in all, this is a fantastic read.  Add it to your professional bookshelves; it’s taken up permanent residence on ours!

Authored by Jordan Khadam-Hir, Rice University School Literacy & Culture

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