Dig Those Asymmetrical Blocks

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Asymmetrical blocks are not the norm in most early learning classrooms. In fact, my personal observation is that many early learning programs have no asymmetrical blocks in their collections. This is a shame, because asymmetrical blocks have a lot to offer children’s play.
The Symmetrical Block Tradition
Symmetrical blocks are the norm in most block play areas. Opposite sides are parallel, corners are 90 degree angles. Sizes are uniform.
Think LEGO.
Think Unit Blocks.
I’m not sure why this type of block is the norm in classrooms, but here are some guesses:
  • Symmetrical blocks are easy to use. Their uniformity makes for simple and systematic stacking.
  • Symmetrical blocks look pretty stacked on the block area shelving.
  • Symmetrical blocks, like organized early learning programs, really began to blossom during the industrial revolution, so the blocks and the programs kinda grew up together.
  • Symmetrical blocks are predictable. They are easy to understand.
  • Symmetrical blocks convey the uniformity and order that adults often wish (or force) upon children.
No Bad Blood Here
I’ve gotta be clear, I’ve got nothing against symmetrical blocks. They are great. I’ve spent huge hunks of time as a child and as an adult creating with them. A set of colored unit blocks I got at age 4 is on my Top Five Toys From Childhood list. There is no bad blood between me and symmetrical blocks. For example, if I’m in a restaurant and see a symmetrical block sitting at the bar, I’d strike up a conversation and buy the next round, I don’t try to sneak by without making eye contact. Symmetrical blocks are great–I love them, kids love them. What’s not to love?
AND we also need to show asymmetrical blocks some more love. We need to invite them into our block areas. We need to make space for them. We need to plop them down and see what kids can do with them.
What Did Hunter Gatherer Children Stack?
Nice, neat, orderly, and predictable unit blocks have not always been around. Imagine little Ogg and her playmates goofing around on the edges of the clans campsite 10,000 years ago–what did they stack?
There were no LEGO or maple unit blocks. Ogg’s parents couldn’t just pop off to the shops and buy her a set of blocks. If hunter-gatherer children wanted to stack stuff, they probably stacked asymmetrical stones, pieces of wood, shells, bones, and other natural objects. Perfectly symmetrical hunks of wood were probably a bit of a rarity back then. You can’t just stop by the LEGO tree and pick what you need. Kids stacked what was available–imperfect bits of nature.
Asymmetrical Block Love
Here are four reasons I love Asymmetrical blocks and would like to see them in more classrooms:

1) They Are Imperfect. I love the imperfection of asymmetrical blocks. These blocks, and the structures built with them, have a bit of a wabi sabi aesthetic that I find pleasing. Each asymmetrical block has its own personality–it looks different, it balances different, it feels different in the hand. I like my blocks the way I like my people–unique and a bit askew.

2) They Invite Investigation. Our brains crave novelty and asymmetrical blocks tend to be novel. These blocks become Bright Shiny Objects that draws attention and encourages investigation. Adding asymmetrical blocks to a collection of traditional blocks can reinvigorate a block play area because the busy little brains in the room will be drawn to the interesting new objects.

3) They Behave Differently. Asymmetrical blocks are less predictable than symmetrical blocks. They behave differently. They are prone to tipping and tilting. Their irregular shapes make them more challenging to use. Kids have to work to get them to balance. Building with asymmetrical blocks requires more problem solving and forethought. You have to think about which block your grabbing more often and ask yourself “will this block do the job?” Because of all this, building with asymmetrical blocks can take longer.

I find all these different block behaviors to be features and not bugs. All of the things that can make using such blocks challenging also spark activity in the body and brain. Those are great things to have happen in an early learning classroom.

4) They Play Well. Asymmetrical blocks are the opposite of stuck up and snooty. They play really well with traditional blocks. They add a bit of spice and novelty. The last thing you want to do if you add asymmetrical blocks to you collection of traditional blocks is segregate them.


Mix them up! There’s nothing better than a fully integrated block area with a wide variety of blocks working together to build a castle or construct a cityscape.

Hard To Find

Because the block world is so locked in to traditional blocks, sets of Asymmetrical blocks are a bit hard to find. That’s why we’ve been building our own line of asymmetrical blocks for years. You can, however, always turn to nature for your asymmetrical blocks. Another option is to Do It Yourself. Building your own asymmetrical blocks is pretty straightforward, but just in case you need some help, we’ll be back with some helpful DIY articles.

Share your thoughts in the comments below…

 

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Jeff is an early learning speaker, toymaker, podcaster, content creator, author, and founder of Playvolution HQ who is really bad at getting his picture taken.

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