November 28, 2011

'Block Consultants' Teach The Test

Oh, brother, what to make of the NY Times' "Back To Blocks" trend story that leads off with a "self-described 'block consultant'" leading a class for parents in block play?

As in fashion, old things often come back in style in education. The Parents League workshop reflects a renewed faith in unit blocks -- those basic, indestructible wooden toys created in the early 1900s -- sweeping through some elite swaths of New York's education universe. While many progressive private and public schools have long sworn by blocks, more traditional institutions are now refocusing on block centers amid worries that academic pressure and technology are squeezing play out of young children's lives.
First, well, there is much conflation going on here, much indiscriminate stacking: building block sets vs. unit blocks; progressive vs. traditional schools; public, private, charter, and for-profit.

Then there's this, from the "early education conference" organizer at one of Manhattan's most elite preschools, which, we'll deal with that concept later:

Ms. Reitzes, who runs the youth center at the 92nd Street Y, said many educators were embracing blocks as an antidote to fine-motor-skill deficits and difficulty with unstructured activity, problems that they blame on too much time in front of screens and overly academic preschools.
I'm sorry, but what the hell is an "overly academic preschool"? Imaginative play with blocks or not, fine motor development, unstructured activity, and socialization are exactly the developmental and "academic" milestones you should have for a preschooler. Any educator should know that, and should not be having to rush out and buy blocks, or develop new block-centered curricula, certainly not in preschool-to-kindergarten, at least.

And if you try parsing the Times article, you find that's the case; schools are "refocusing" on blocks, not newly acquiring them. When the Times guy calls your new, for-profit or charter school about the hot new blocks trend, you're not going to knock his tower over.

But I think the Times left out a key explanation of why parents might be clamoring to fill classes with the block consultant, especially this time of year, and especially at the 92nd St Y: school admissions.

Blocks are used in the standardized intelligence test, the E.R.B., used across the city's independent schools, and in the test it's derived from, the WPPSI. Guiding and tweaking your kid's block play in a way that just happens to mirror the types of exercise in the test is not coaching per se, is it? It's just making sure your kid's comfortable and not blindsided by whatever he might be asked to do with a pile of blocks in front of him.

The other, possibly more crucial preparation is the preschool playdate. Teachers and admissions officers should be able to spot an overcoached kid a mile away. Which is why parents need expert advice on how to boost their kid's blockplaying quotient without leaving fingerprints.

With Building Blocks, Educators Going Back To Basics [nyt]
image: Pratt Blocks by Kid-O, licensed from City and Country School


Leave it to the NY Times, NYC schools, assorted consultants and my fellow NYC parents to take all that is wonderful about blocks and ruin it.

Egad—just the phrase "coached preschooler" makes me shudder.

Blocks are big in your old stomping grounds too - where we've never even heard of ERB and WPPSI (or at least I haven't!):

Title of article is "Block Fest teaches parents why block play is so important" (sorry in advance that it's from the "go ask mom" part of their website)

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