Laying the Foundation: Playing with Blocks and Puzzles Can Prepare Children to Learn Math

Originally posted on The Learning Exchange by Nora Newcombe | May 9, 2016


In the first 5 or 6 years of life, we often think that children should begin to learn math by learning to count, and maybe we add in a bit of simple addition and subtraction. But teachers in JK and SK can do more. And it can be FUN!!


Lego blocks

An increasing amount of research suggests that play with blocks and puzzles can strengthen the kind of spatial thinking that supports learning many math concepts. When children play with blocks, they develop stronger skills at analyzing and building patterns. These skills lay the foundation, in turn, for better learning of mathematics, perhaps because math is about finding patterns and understanding relations. Precisely copying patterns to build a structure even involves counting, along with analyzing and visualizing. In addition, the number line is a spatial representation of number, and studies have found that early spatial skills predict better number line performance later. An additional bonus of block play is that parents and teachers naturally use spatial words as they talk to children about what they are building, and learning spatial words gives a further boost to the children’s spatial and geometric thinking.

Child holding two puzzle pieces, contemplating them.

Puzzle play is also a great way to lay a spatial and mathematical foundation. Like block play, it develops spatial skills that are known to be important in learning math. And like block play, it engages parents and teachers in talking to children about spatial relationships.
In addition, parents and teachers often gesture about how to hold and turn puzzle pieces, which shows children naturally and concretely how they can manipulate shapes in their mind, and helps children understand novel spatial words.




Ferrara, K., Golinkoff, R. Hirsh-Pasek, K., Lam, W. & Newcombe, N. (2011). Block talk: Spatial language during block play. Mind, Brain and Education, 5, 143-151.

Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., Beilock, S. L., & Levine, S. C. (2012). The relation between spatial skill and early number knowledge: the role of the linear number line. Developmental  Psychology48, 1229-1241.

Verdine, B.N., Golinkoff, R.M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Newcombe, N.S., Filipowicz, A.T. & Chang, A. (2014). Deconstructing building blocks: Preschoolers’ spatial assembly performance relates to early mathematics skills. Child Development, 85, 1062-1076.


This blog post was written by Nora Newcombe for LearnTeachLead.

Nora Newcombe



Nora Newcombe is a Professor of Psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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