One handy thing about having young children is that it’s given me a good excuse to knock off work and play with blocks. I love building blocks. I could spend hours just building towers and letting my 2-year-old knock them down. It’s one of the purest delights I know.
For writer Lawrence Weschler, playing with blocks is a big part of his writing process, particularly when he’s working out the structure for a piece:
I procrastinate. I play with blocks. I have lots and lots of blocks, wooden blocks, and you should see the palaces I construct. Not giving the subject the slightest thought. Awash in pure formfulness. Puzzles and revelations surrounding structure. Days pass. Weeks, (Obviously somewhere in the back of my mind, I am sorting out structural issues regarding my writing as well, but not consciously.) At length, palace-building all the while, I begin to thrum around about structural questions in the piece: what if I led instead with X? And, hey, wait, it’s weird, but that P section rhymes with the T, S could go before P, and we could flip M and N. Hmmm. And this sort of thing becomes more and more interesting to me. Presently compellingly interesting. (The polarities reverse, and now the empty page is magnetized north and the rest of the world south: The house is burning down? Who cares.)
In The New New Journalism, he makes a point that his blocks are his own:
These blocks belong to your daughter?
No, my daughter is not allowed to play with these blocks. They are mine.
And what do you do with these blocks?
Well, my wife, who is an important human rights monitor, and my daughter, who has been off at school, will come home and see the elaborate cathedral I’ve built on the kitchen table. And they’ll say, “We see you’ve been busy today.” And I have!
Later, he’s asked how the block palaces he builds actually get translated into writing:
I tape large one-by-three-foot blank sheets together to create a kind of a blotter. I doodle and sketch a lot on the blotter. I make little diagrams to connect things. The point is to lay out and visualize the structures I’ve been thinking through when I was playing with the blocks.
There is something magical that happens when you move things around with your hands — it frees up your mind to think. (Just now I was doing the dishes and came up with the images for a talk I am working on.)
Weschler is not the only creative adult who plays with blocks — so does the designer Tucker Viemiester. When he found out his mom donated his old blocks to Head Start, he made her get them back so that he could have them for himself:
What Mr. Viemeister, who has brought the spirit of fun and practicality to a wealth of products, most famously the Oxo kitchen utensils, values most about the blocks is how plastic they are, even though they are made of wood. With Legos, he said, the play process is more tilted toward a goal: the house or ship or castle that you build and are finished with. The Unit Blocks — with nothing to hold them together, and difficult to move when assembled — encourage a more fluid, open-ended process that is never quite finished and easily started anew.
What’s interesting about building blocks is that they were not always such a commonplace item in the lives of young children. As Norman Brosterman writes in his fantastic book, Inventing Kindergarten, “it is something of a surprise to discover that, like kindergarten itself, they have not been with us forever.”
The kind of children’s blocks we think of today can be traced back to kindergarten’s inventor, Friedrich Fröbel, who included blocks as one of his “gifts” to students. He specifically designed them to be “plastic” in the way that Tucker Viemeister points out makes them so great. Froebel hated the way most kids’ toys and models in the nineteenth century were basically like the packaged pre-destined LEGO kits of today, where there is a “right” way to put them together, a final shape to build step-by-step towards, so he made his block sets pure geometry, “Nonspecific, open-ended, and symbolic.” Here’s a picture of some of the block sets from Inventing Kindergarten:
Later, Caroline Pratt, founder of City and Country School, and author of the great book I Learn From Children, developed the “Unit blocks” we know best today from preschool and kindergarten. She was trying to figure out a good way to bring the world into the classroom. She wanted to help children discover the world by re-building it in miniature.
The Unit blocks were her solution. In Ian Franzier’s introduction to I Learn From Children, he writes:
She had taught manual arts and knew hot to work with wood. From pieces of maple she made sets of building blocks in basic shapes, each shape in proportion with the others so they could adjoin each other in simple multiples…. [They] became the most widely used elementary-level playtime blocks in the country… She couldn’t patent her Unit Blocks — in them she had discovered something too basic to claim, as if she had invented water—but their acceptance by day care centers and nursery and elementary schools is by now close to unanimous.
Frazier points out that the blocks, which were designed to mimic architecture, ended up influencing architecture itself. This is exactly Brosterman’s thesis in Inventing Kindergarten: that kindergarten’s emphasis on geometry and abstraction had a part to play in the beginning of abstract art and modern architecture. (Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, was one of the first generation of students in Froebel-style kindergarten, and fondly remembered his Froebel blocks.)
So, if you’re feeling blocked… buy yourself a set of blocks!
(Above: pages from the Feb 12, 1945 issue of LIFE magazine.)