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Children’s Play Preferences, Construction Play with Blocks, and Visual-spatial Skills: Are they Related?


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Fifty-one preschoolers’ play preferences, skills at assembling block structures, and spatial abilities were recorded in this study. There were no sex differences in children’s visual-spatial skills, and play with art materials and children’s free and structured play with blocks were related to spatial visualisation. Two patterns emerged from the findings: (1) activity and performance representing skills in spatial visualisation and visual-motor coordination; and (2) creativity, or the ability to break set and to produce varied solutions using visual materials. Future research might examine the extent to which children’s play activities and experiences predict these types of skills.
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Construction Play 1
Children’s Play Preferences, Construction Play with Blocks, and Visual-Spatial Skills:
Are They Related?
Yvonne M. Caldera Anne McDonald Culp Marion O'Brien
Texas Tech University University of Alabama University of Kansas
Rosemarie T. Truglio Mildred Alvarez Aletha C. Huston
Children’s Television Workshop San Jose State University University of Texas
The research was supported by a grant from the General Research Fund of the University of
Kansas and by training grant 5T32HD07173 from the National Institute for Child Health and Human
Development. The authors are grateful to Mary Pinon for her assistance in data collection and coding,
for the editors for providing feedback on the manuscript, and to the children and teachers who
participated in the project. Address correspondence and reprint requests to Yvonne M. Caldera,
Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Texas Tech University, Box 41162,
Lubbock, TX 79409.
Running head: Construction Play
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Fifty-one preschoolers' play preferences, skills at assembling block structures, and spatial abilities
were recorded in this study. There were no sex differences in children's visual-spatial skills, and play
with art materials and children's free and structured play with blocks were related to spatial
visualization. Two patterns emerged from the findings: 1) activity and performance representing skills
in spatial visualization and visual motor-coordination, and 2) creativity, or the ability to break set and to
produce varied solutions using visual materials. Future research might examine the extent to which
children’s play activities and experiences predict these types of skills.
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Children’s Play Preferences, Construction Play with Blocks and Visual-Spatial Skills:
Are They Related?
It is widely recognized that play, a spontaneous, self-guided activity, provides children
opportunities to learn and practice important cognitive and social skills. Visual spatial skill is one area
of cognitive ability that has frequently been associated with sex differences (Huttenlocher & Levine,
1993) and with particular play preferences (Tracy, 1987). Interest in the determinants of visual-spatial
skills has been stimulated by consistent findings that spatial abilities are related to math and science
achievement (Casey, Pezaris, & Nuttall, 1992; Tracy, 1990) and that males tend to perform better than
females on most visual-spatial tasks, at least by adolescence (Burns & Reynolds, 1988; Geary, Gilger,
& Elliott-Miller, 1992; Harris, 1981; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974; McGee, 1979; Tracy, 1990), as early as
middle childhood (Johnson & Meade, 1987; Kerns & Berenbaum, 1991) and even preschool
(Huttenlocher & Levine, 1993).
Spatial abilities, according to Linn and Petersen (1985) involve more than one component. In
a meta-analysis of studies investigating sex-differences in spatial abilities, they identified three primary
components: a) spatial perception, or determining spatial relations of objects with respect to one's
own body orientation; b) mental rotation, or identifying a model in a different orientation; and c) spatial
visualization, which involves multistep mental manipulations of spatially presented information. Linn
and Petersen (1985) found that the magnitude of sex differences in visual-spatial skills is largest for
mental rotation, medium for spatial perception, and smallest for spatial visualization tasks. These
findings have been further replicated with more recent studies in a meta-analysis by Voyer, Voyer, and
Bryden (1995). Voyer et al (1995) further discovered that effect sizes in sex differences found in the
literature vary as a function of partitioning of data (differences more marked in older ages) and some
aspect of how the tests were administered or scored (individually vs. in group).
The origin of this sex difference remains a source of considerable debate. Both genetic and
hormonal explanations have been proposed (Casey & Brabeck, 1989; Kimura & Hampson, 1994;
Lewis & Harris, 1988; McGee, 1979; Newcombe & Bandura, 1983; Resnick, Gottesman, Berenbaum,
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& Bouchard, 1986; Voyer & Bryden, 1990). For example, females with congenital adrenal hyperplasia
(CAH) (Resnick et al., 1986) and right-handed females with nonright-handed relatives (Casey &
Brabeck, 1989) demonstrate high levels of spatial ability as compared to their female counterparts.
On the other hand, some investigators have stressed the importance of environmental factors
such as sex-typed play activities in the development of visual-spatial skills (Newcombe , 1982;
Sherman, 1967). This view emphasizes socialization differences in childhood (Fagot, 1977, 1978).
There is evidence that boys play more often than girls with blocks and other toys that provide practice
with two- and three-dimensional manipulations and transformations (Tracy, 1987), and this "practice
deficit" may contribute to girls' poorer performance on visual-spatial tasks. A meta-anlaysis in the role
of experience in spatial skills performance by Baenninger & Newcombe (1989) found that for both
males and females, participation in spatial activities is related to spatial ability. This relationship,
however, accounts for only 9% of the variance in spatial skills. The present study was designed to
further investigate the link between play preferences in the classroom, ability at block play and visual-
spatial skills of girls and boys in the preschool age when sex differences are lowest.
Spatial Abilities and Play Activities
Correlational studies have shown that participating in spatial activities such as ball playing and
playing with "manipulative" toys are positively related to preschoolers' visual spatial skills.
Preschoolers who frequently engaged in "masculine" play activities have been shown to perform
better on the Preschool Embedded Figures Test (PEFT) (spatial visualization) than those who spent
less time in masculine activities (Fagot & Littman, 1976). After coding preschoolers' free play
preferences as either masculine or feminine, Connor and Serbin (1977) found that boys' preferences
for masculine activities was positively related to their performance on the PEFT, but not to their
performance on the Block Design subtest of the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of
Intelligence (spatial visualization with mental rotation component). In contrast, activity choices were
not related to girls' performance on these spatial tasks. A replication study with a larger sample,
however, demonstrated that preschoolers of both sexes who were rated as frequently engaging in
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masculine activities performed better on the Block Design task than did those identified as "high
feminine" children (Serbin & Connor, 1979).
Anthropological studies conducted in Kenya also provide support for the hypothesis that
engaging in spatial activities enhances performance on spatial tasks (Munroe & Munroe, 1971;
Nerlove, Munroe, & Munroe, 1971). Children who had more experience exploring the physical
environment away from their home performed better on the Copying Blocks subtest of the
Stanford-Binet than did children who stayed close to home.
In addition to these correlational studies, several experimental studies have demonstrated
that visual spatial skills can be learned through training and practice and will generalize to a related
task (Connor, Serbin, & Schackman, 1977; Connor, Schackman, & Serbin, 1978; Matthews, 1987).
To determine if male superiority on visual spatial tests is a direct result of masculine play experiences,
Sprafkin, Serbin, Denier, and Connor (1983) randomly assigned preschoolers to a training session
during which they were exposed to masculine toys (e.g., blocks and tinker toys). Children exhibiting
high or low rates of male-preferred selections in free play were equally represented in both training
and control conditions. Two training sessions over a six week period consisted of three phases: (a)
children were instructed about how the materials may be used and shown relevant features (e.g.,
number of sides); (b) children were encouraged to make various structures out of the materials; and
(c) children played with the materials on their own during a free play session. Performance on the
Block Design subtest of the WPPSI and the Punched Holes Test was significantly greater at post-test
for children in the training condition, whereas pre- and post-test scores did not differ for the control
group, thus providing evidence for a causal relation between play with construction toys and spatial
visualization task performance.
To date, however, there are no studies in which children's structured and unstructured play
with blocks and similar manipulative toys has been observed closely enough to determine the
mechanisms by which such play might enhance visual-spatial skills. The present study examines the
role of preschoolers' play preferences and behavior as correlates of two types of visual spatial skills.
This study goes beyond other research in that it includes in-depth observation of children's
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involvement and skill in complex block play both structured and unstructured. Children's
spontaneous levels of interest, creativity and complexity of play was assessed during a free play
session with blocks. Children's skills in block construction and visualization were assessed in a
structured block modeling task. Two types of visual spatial skills were assessed using standardized
tests which measured the spatial visualization component of spatial skills and perceptual field
independence or ability to break set. Spatial visualization was selected for two reasons: 1) tests
which can be used with preschoolers assess only spatial visualization as the other two components
appear at later ages (Voyer et al., 1995); and 2) these tests do not demonstrate consistent sex
differences, thus, within-gender differences can be more readily investigated. Although performance
on embedded figures involves some visual-spatial ability, it also measures field independence or
ability to break set, both of which are components of nonverbal creativity. Finally, verbal skills were
assessed to control for individual differences in verbal skills.
The goals of this study were two-fold: (a) to investigate the relation between preschoolers' play
preferences in a classroom setting and their performance on standardized visual-spatial tasks; and (b)
to analyze their free and structured play with blocks and its relation to spatial skill performance. The
following hypotheses were tested in this project: 1) Children's play preferences in preschool,
particularly play with manipulative toys, will be related to their visual spatial skills as assessed by
standardized tests; 2) Children's play with blocks (involvement and complexity of free play with
blocks; and complexity and correctness of structured/modeling block play) will be related to their
visual spatial skills as assessed by standardized tests.
Sixty children attending nine university-affiliated preschool classrooms participated in this
study. The children ranged in age from 47 to 69 months (M = 56.5 mo). Data from nine of the
children are not included in this report because the children did not complete all measures due to
moves from the area during the study. The final sample thus consisted of 26 girls and 25 boys.
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There was no difference in the ages of the two sexes (girls M = 56.3 mos, boys M = 56.7 mos, t < 1.0,
ns). Most of the children were from middle-class homes, and they were predominantly European-
American in ethnic background.
Procedures and Measures
Play preferences. The toy and play activity preferences of the children were measured using
a play preference teacher rating form completed by the lead teacher in each child's classroom. The
form consisted of a listing of 18 play activities typically observed in preschool classrooms. Teachers
reported how frequently each child chose each of the activities during free play periods using a 5-point
Likert-type scale ranging from "almost always" to "almost never." Twelve of the 18 activities were
selected to represent three categories of play: art (easel painting, using magic markers, crayons and
coloring books, and cutting paper); fantasy play (playing house, playing hospital, giving a puppet
show, and playing grocery store); and manipulative toy play (jigsaw puzzles, parquetry blocks, Legos,
and blocks). Scores on these subsets were summed to obtain a preference rating for each child in
each category.
Observations of Block Play
On two occasions, children were taken to a playroom where they were videotaped at play with
standard preschool wooden blocks.
Unstructured block play. During the first block play session, children were presented with a
large box filled with 70 blocks comprising a variety of shapes and were asked to "Build the best thing
you can with these blocks." No other instructions were given, and the adult, who remained in the
room to monitor the child and the video camera, was involved in paperwork and instructed to minimize
interaction with the child. The unstructured block play sessions lasted approximately 15 min, but
could be terminated earlier if the child wished.
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The videotapes of the unstructured block play sessions were later coded for the complexity
and competency of children's use of blocks and their degree of interest and involvement. The total
time children spent in play was also recorded. Two observers scored the tapes and both scored 12 of
the tapes for reliability. The coding definitions and inter-observer agreements for each coding
category are shown in Table 1.
Insert Table 1 about here.
Structured block play. On a different day, children were taken to the same playroom and
shown a complex block model, illustrated in Figure 1, which they were asked to duplicate, using the
box of blocks that had been provided for unstructured play. Again, the adult remained in the room and
videotaped the session but engaged in minimal interaction. The structured block play sessions lasted
approximately 15 min and could be terminated earlier by the child.
Insert Figure 1 about here.
The videotapes of the structured block play sessions were coded for accuracy by the same
two coders who scored the unstructured play sessions. Each child received a score for each block
placed; a correct placement received a score of 2, a placement that was approximately correct a
score of 1, and an incorrect placement a score of 0. The child's total score was used as the primary
measure of accuracy; scores could range from 0 to 86.
In addition, the block model was partitioned into 6 sections, and the correct placement of
sections with regard to the entire model was scored from slides taken of the child's final structure. For
each section of the model, a child received a score of 3 for placement between the correct two
adjacent sections, a score of 2 for correct placement next to one adjoining section, a score of 1 for
placement of the section in the approximately correct position in the structure, or a score of 0 if the
section was not constructed or placed entirely incorrectly. A child's total score on this scale could
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range from 0 to 18. The number of sections that were correctly constructed was also counted.
Finally, children's efforts to rebuild collapsed portions of the structure were counted. Interobserver
agreement, calculated on 25% of the structured block play sessions, averaged 85% accuracy of
individual block placements.
Standardized Tests
Visual-spatial skills were evaluated using three different standardized measures. Children's
verbal skills were also evaluated in order to control for general intellectual ability. Each test was
administered on a separate day in a testing room near the child's preschool classroom. The order in
which tests were administered was varied randomly.
Block Design. The Block Design (BD) subtest from the Wechsler Preschool and Primary
Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI; Wechsler, 1967) and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children -
Revised (WISC-R; Wechsler, 1974) were administered to measure the children's ability to analyze
and reproduce abstract forms. These tests assess spatial visualization, but also contain some
mental rotation components. The WPPSI Block Design subtest uses flat (2-dimensional) red-and-
white blocks and consists of 10 items in which the child is asked to reproduce either a model
constructed by the examiner or a pictured design. The 11-item WISC-R Block Design subtest uses
red-and-white cubes and children are asked to reproduce patterns of increasing complexity.
All children began the block design tasks with the first WPPSI item and continued until they had two
consecutive failures. Both the WPPSI and the WISC-R tasks were used to ensure that all children
reached a ceiling of performance. The highest possible score on the combined tests was 44. The
block design subtests from the WPPSI and WISC-R are highly reliable, with test-retest correlations
reported at .82 and .85 respectively (Wechsler, 1967, 1974).
Embedded Figures Test. The Children's Embedded Figures Test (CEFT; Karp & Konstadt,
1971) was administered to assess children's ability to abstract a geometric figure embedded within a
more complex picture. This test also measures spatial visualization. The test consists of 11 items in
which children locate a triangle of specific size and 14 items in which children locate a 5-sided
"house"; each series is preceded by two practice trials. Children were given a laminated paper shape
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to place on the embedded shape in the picture. The test was discontinued when children failed 5
consecutive items. The highest possible score was 25.
Test-retest reliability for the CEFT has been reported to range from .83 to .90 (Karp &
Kondstadt, 1971). Construct validity has been evaluated with older children through correlations with
scores on the adult version of the Embedded Figures Test (r = .85 for 11-year-old children) and with
visual-spatial subtests of the WISC (statistically significant r values ranging from .32 to .49; Witkin et
al., 1971).
Copying Blocks. The block portion of the Copying subscale from the Stanford-Binet
Intelligence Scale, 4th edition (Thorndike, Hagen, & Sattler, 1986) was used to measure visual-motor
ability (CB). The CB contains aspects of spatial visualization as well as mental rotation. The test
consists of 12 items in which children are asked to reproduce 3-dimensional structures using solid-
color cubes. The test is discontinued after 4 consecutive failures, and the highest possible score was
12. Test-retest reliability for the entire copying subtest (which includes paper-and-pencil tasks that
were not administered in the present study) is reported at .87 (Thorndike et al., 1986).
Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test- Revised. The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised
(PPVT-R; Dunn & Dunn, 1981) was used to measure the verbal abilities of the children. The test
consisted of 175 items that assessed the child's receptive vocabulary. The children were shown
groups of four pictures and then were instructed to show what was asked. The reliabilities for the test
range from .71 to .89 (Dunn & Dunn, 1981). The children's scores on this measure did not differ by
gender. Males and females scored similarly on their verbal abilities (male, M = 55.43, s.d. = 20.57 ;
female, M = 58.35, s.d. = 17.53).
Preliminary Analyses
All scores were submitted to multivariate analysis of covariance (MANCOVA) in order to test
for sex differences in play activities, unstructured and structured block play and standardized test.
Verbal ability (score on the PPVT-R) was used as the covariate in all analyses.
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Play preferences. A 2 (sex) X 2 (age) multivariate analysis of covariance (MANCOVA)
controlling for score on the PPVT was carried out to test for sex differences in children's play
preferences as rated by their preschool teachers. Girls and boys were rated as having significantly
different preferences, F(3, 52) = 19.43, p<.001. Univariate tests indicated significant sex differences
in fantasy (boys M = 2.38, s.d. = .52; girls M = 2.98, s.d. = .63,F (1, 54) = 20.64; p<.001) and
manipulative toy play (girls M = 2.40, s.d. = .52; boys M = 3.23, s.d. = .50, F (1, 54) = 36.79, p<.001)
but no difference in preference for art activities (girls M = 2.20, s.d. = .46; boys M 2.40, s.d. = .45, F (1,
54) = 3.49, n.s.).
Unstructured block play. Separate MANCOVAs with the score on the PPVT as a covariate
were used to test for sex differences in building strategies, types of blocks used, quality of
construction play, and time spent in free block play (see Table 2). Boys and girls differed only on the
set of variables describing number and types of blocks used, F(5, 42) = 2.77, p<.05. Univariate
results indicated that girls were more likely than boys to use the "unique" or unusual-shaped blocks,
and boys were more likely than girls to build more than one structure during their free block play time.
There were no overall differences between boys and girls in the frequency with which they used
building strategies, F(7, 40) = 1.12, ns; the qualitative ratings of their play, F(3, 44) = 1.61, ns; or the
amount of time spent in block play, F(1, 46) = 2.89, ns.
Insert Table 2 about here.
Structured block play. A MANCOVA was run controlling for the score on the PPVT on the set
of structured block play variables that measured the accuracy with which children reproduced the
block model. No sex differences were found, F(5, 41) = 1.41, ns. (Correct blocks, girls M = 42.23, s.d.
= 25.12, boys M = 38.58, s.d. = 25.08; correct sections, girls M = 8.42, s.d. = 6.37, boys M = 8.08, s.d.
= 7.14; number of sections completed, girls M = 4.12, s.d. = 1.95, boys M = 3.50, s.d. = 2.15; rebuilds,
girls M = 1.50, s.d. = 2.00, boys M = 1.38, s.d. = 1.93.)
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Spatial tests. A MANCOVA with the score on the PPVT as a covariate was carried out to test
for sex differences in children's performance on the three spatial tasks presented to them. There
were no overall differences between boys and girls, F(3, 52) = 0.86, ns. (Block Design, girls M =
18.41, s.d. = 13.04, boys M = 19.39, s.d. = 13.63; Copying Blocks, girls M = 8.06, s.d. = 2.47, boys M
= 7.36, s.d. = 2.70; Embedded Figures, girls M = 8.84, s.d. = 4.88, boys M = 9.29, s.d. = 5.77.)
Play Preferences, Block Play, and Spatial Skills
Variables used in analyses. A series of regression analyses was carried out to examine
associations among children's play preferences, their skill at unstructured and structured block play,
and their performance on spatial tasks. Because a large number of variables was obtained from the
unstructured play session, factor analysis was used to create clusters of variables representing
dimensions of children's play behavior. As shown in Table 3, three factors were found to account for
more than 50% of the variance. The first factor, labeled complexity of play, included use of block
interfaces, rotating and flipping blocks before placing them in a structure, and symmetrical placements
of blocks. A second factor, labeled interest/involvement, included total number of structural forms
used, the qualitative ratings of children's play, and the number of times children rebuilt structures that
collapsed. The third factor, labeled number and variety of blocks used, included the number of
different shaped blocks children used, use of unique-shaped blocks, and the total number of blocks
used. A composite variable was used in the regression equations to index each of these components
of children's free block play.
Performance on spatial tasks (dependent variable) was measured by the childrens’
performance on replicating a block model ( number of correct block placements and number of
correct completions of model sections); and on standardized subscales (block design, copying blocks,
and embedded figures).
Insert Table 3 about here.
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For each set of analyses, age was entered first into the regression equation. Predictor
variables were then entered as a block to evaluate the significance of the relation for each set of
variables. Each analysis with a statistically significant R-squared was followed up by a series of
hierarchical analyses in which each independent variable was entered individually, in a stepwise
fashion, to evaluate the increase in R-squared attributable to each variable.
Play preferences and block play. The first set of regression analyses examined the
associations among children's play preferences and the sets of variables used as indices of skill at
unstructured and structured block play, and the relation between unstructured and structured play with
blocks. Significant results are shown in Table 4. Children's play preferences showed no relation to
the unstructured block play variables: complexity of play, F(4, 46) = 1.51; quantity and variety of
blocks used, F(4, 46) = 0.86. Preference for art activities and the complexity of play of children's free
play with blocks predicted their accuracy in structured block play.
Insert Table 4 about here.
Play preferences and spatial skills. The results of the regression analyses examining the role
of play preferences in spatial test performance are shown in Table 5. A preference for play with art
materials was associated with high performance on the BD test, and a trend toward a relation between
art and the CB test was found. A preference for fantasy play was significantly associated with
performance on the CB test. Manipulative toy play preference was not related to performance on any
of the spatial tests.
Insert Table 5 about here.
Block play and spatial skills. The results of the analyses relating children's skill at block play
and their performance on visual-spatial tests are shown in Table 6. The free block play variable
indexing complexity of play was a significant predictor of scores on the BD test and marginally related
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to performance on the CEFT. The variable indexing interest and involvement in free block play
predicted CEFT scores. None of the unstructured block play variables was related to the CB task, but
accuracy of block placement during the structured block play session was strongly related to
performance on the BD and CB tests. Accuracy in reproducing the block model did not relate to the
CEFT test.
Insert Table 6 about here.
The two main purposes of this study were to examine the relation between preschoolers' play
preferences in a classroom setting and performance on visual-spatial tasks, and the relation of play
with blocks and to visual-spatial skills. Previous research has typically found a difference between
girls and boys, favoring boys, in spatial ability. This difference has been attributed in part to
differences in play experiences of girls and boys. This study examined the play preferences and
spatial skills of preschoolers in an effort to provide further understanding of the role of experience in
this sex difference and in individual differences in visual spatial skills within sexes.
There were few differences between girls and boys on the measures used. Boys were rated
as preferring manipulative toys more than girls did. During play with blocks, girls and boys differed
only on two dimensions. Girls used more unique shapes in their structures and boys built more
structures, but these aspects of their play were not associated with visual spatial skills. Girls and boys
did not differ in performance on any of the visual-spatial tests. These findings are consistent with
previous research suggesting that girls and boys play with different toys, and that children's spatial
skills do not differ by gender in the preschool years, at lease as measured by psychometric tests; thus
further assessing the antecedents of spatial skills in future research seems warranted.
The prediction that children's play with manipulative toys would be related to their spatial
abilities was not supported. Play with manipulative toys was not related to any of the measures of
spatial skills either during block play or in the standardized tests. This finding is in contrast to Connor
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and Serbin's (1977) finding that play in masculine activities, which included manipulative toys, was
positively related to spatial ability, but is consistent with Newcombe 's (1993) results showing that play
with masculine toys was not related to spatial ability. The Newcombe study and the present
investigation used different methods of classifying toys than Connor and Serbin’s study did. Connor
and Serbin classified their toys by sex-stereotype; Newcombe classified toys and play activities as
spatial, non-spatial, and rated by sex-stereotype; the present study classified toys by ability
requirements. Perhaps if individual types of toys and activities are compared individually across
studies, more similarities will be found.
Play with art materials, reproduction of a complex block structure, and performance on tests
of spatial visualization were interrelated. Although art was not expected to predict spatial skills, this
findings is consistent with Newcombe ’s (1993) investigation showing that participation in sex-neutral
activities, including art, was positively related to spatial ability. As art is generally considered sex-
neutral, sex-stereotyping of the play activity does not appear to be a relevant mediator of its
associations with spatial skills.
The common elements in art, reproducing a block structure, and the two tests of spatial
visualization appear to be skills in analyzing, visualizing, and visual-motor coordination. Engagement
in art activities may provide preschoolers with an opportunity to practice analyzing visually and
reproducing objects, which is a skill required by the block design test (BD), and experience with the
visual-motor coordination needed for the copying blocks test (CB). These findings are consistent with
the notion that practice with art materials develops eye-hand coordination and the ability to observe
the environment in more detail and thus to be better at reproducing observable designs.
Children’s performance with the blocks in free play and their interest and involvement
predicted performance on the embedded figures test, but not the tests of spatial visualization.
Performance on the CEFT requires the ability to abstract figure from ground, to break set, and to be
field independent. Children who created a variety of block forms, who demonstrated planning and
interest in building their free play structure appear to have been practicing skills involved in breaking
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set and fluent production required to find the embedded shape in the CEFT. The common skills in
these activities are those often defined as creativity.
Even the patterns that were demonstrated here do not, of course, demonstrate a causal
relation. They are consistent with the hypothesis that experience in play activities influences children’s
visual-spatial skills, but an alternative interpretation is equally plausible. Individual differences in
visual-spatial ability or in breaking set that contribute to the observed correlations could result from
genetic differences or early experience or both. Nonetheless, it is important to understand how such
skills are manifested in play, and how different aspects of play and performance are configured.
In summary, the hypothesis that preference for manipulative play activities predicts visual
spatial ability was not supported. Instead, two patterns emerged. One of these appears to indicate a
configuration of activity and performance representing skills in spatial visualization and visual-motor
coordination. It consists of preference for art activities, skill at reproducing a complex block model,
and skill on two tests of spatial visualization. The second appears to represent some components of
creativity ability to break set and to produce varied solutions using visual materials. It is represented
by interest and involvement in free play block construction, complex and varied structures in free play,
and skill on an embedded figures task that requires the child to break set and do perceptual
reorganization of a visual stimulus. Future research might profitably examine the extent to which
children’s play activities and experiences predict or enhance these two types of skills.
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Table 1 Unstructured block play codes and inter-observer agreements.
placements Placing the same shaped block in a design, such as at both ends of a long block, or re-
creating the
same structure a second time
Rotations/flips Rotating or turning blocks for the purpose of making interfaces, symmetrical placements, or
Adjustments Moving a previously-placed block to another location on the structure
Trial placements Manipulating a new block as if to place it on the structure, actually touching the block to the stru
but not actually placing the block; or completely removing a previously-placed block
Saves Child acts to prevent a collapse
Interfaces Placement of two complementary blocks together, such as combining an arch with a semicircle or
two ramps together to form a rectangle
Collapses Block or structure falls or is moved out of place
Total blocks Total number of different blocks placed
Different shapes used Total number of different block shapes
Unique shapes Number of unusually-shaped blocks used
Number of structures Number of different constructions built
Number of different
block forms Of 16 possible types of constructions (e.g., stacks, arches, enclosures)
QUALITY OF PLAY RATINGS (Agreement within one scalepoint)
Amount of planning in construction
Complexity of final structure
Construction Play 21
Table 2
Means for unstructured block play variables for girls and boys
Girls Boys
Building Strategies 1.63
Symmetrical placements 3.8 3.1 1.8 2.7 ---
Rotation/flips 1.5 2.0 0.6 1.0 ---
Adjustments 5.7 3.7 6.0 3.6 ---
Trial placements 3.1 2.6 2.6 3.3 ---
Saves 5.9 3.6 7.8 6.2 ---
Collapses 7.0 5.3 5.3 3.6 ---
Interfaces 1.8 1.9 1.3 2.4 ---
Types of Blocks Used 3.26*
Total blocks 58.9 19.3 51.2 23.7 1.61
Different shapes 8.9 1.9 8.3 2.5 0.96
Unique shapes 4.7 2.4 3.1 2.3 5.63*
No. of structures 1.1 0.3 1.5 0.9 5.15*
No. of block forms 7.8 1.8 6.9 2.4 2.40
Quality of Play Ratings 0.70
Interest 3.7 1.1 3.4 1.2 ---
Planning 3.3 1.2 2.8 1.5 ---
Complexity 3.1 1.3 2.7 1.4 ---
Time Spent in Play (Min.) 16.4 0.7 15.5 2.6 2.76
Construction Play 25
Table 3
Factor loadings of variables from the unstructured block play session.
Factor 1 Factor 2 Factor 3
Complexity of Play Interest/Involvement Number and Variety of Blocks
Interfaces .89 No. block forms .76 Shapes .85
Rotations/flip .78 Complexity rating .76 Unique shapes .81
Symmetric placements .44 Rebuilds .69 No. of block .78
Planning rating .52
Interest rating .50
Construction Play 26
Table 4
Preschoolers’s play preferences and free block play behavior as predictors of skill
at copying
Dependent Variables: Accuracy Blocks Accuracy Sections
Beta R2 Beta R2
Age .37*** .13 .31** .10
Play Preferences
Art .26* .19 .36*** .22
Manipulative ns ns
Fantasy ns ns
Unstructured Block Play
Complexity of Play .29** .22 .23* .16
Interest/Involvement ns ns
Quantity and variety ns ns
*p<.10. **p<.05. ***p<.01.
Construction Play 27
Table 5
Preschoolers' play preferences as predictors of spatial skills.
Block Design Copying Blocks Embedded Figures
Dependent Variables: Beta R2 Beta R2 Beta R2
Age .45*** .21 .47*** .22 .46*** .21
Art .33** .31 .23* .26 ns
Fantasy ns .34** .28 ns
Manipulative ns ns ns
*p<.10. **p<.05. ***p<.01.
Construction Play 28
Table 6
Preschoolers' free block play and skill at copying a block model as predictors of spatial
Block Design Copying Blocks Embedded Figures
Dependent Variables: Beta R2 Beta R2 Beta R2
Age .45*** .21 .47*** .27 .46*** .21
Free Block Play
Complexity of Play .33*** .32 ns .24* .27
Interest/Involvement ns ns .39*** .38
Number & Variety ns ns ns
Structured Block Play
Accuracy Blo c ks .45*** .38 .37*** .34 ns
Accuracy S ections ns ns ns
*p<.10. **p<.05. ***p<.01.
Figure 1. Block model.
... One experience that contributes to children's spatial skill development is their spatial play, such as play with blocks, puzzles, and board games (Caldera et al., 1999;Siegler and Ramani, 2008;Levine et al., 2012;Verdine et al., 2014c;Jirout and Newcombe, 2015). Spatial play facilitates children's spatial thinking and creates opportunities for them to practice their spatial skills. ...
... We focus on digital block play because physical block play has been studied extensively (Reifel and Greenfield, 1982;Brosnan, 1998;Caldera et al., 1999;Stiles and Stern, 2001;Casey et al., 2008;Bower et al., 2020). Blocks are appropriate for children across the preschool years (Casey et al., 2008) and facilitate several different types of play that include both structured and unstructured building activities . ...
... These different ways of building with blocks allow children to notice and experience the outcomes of different types of spatial manipulations that they physically create. Because research on physical block play shows an association between children's block building behaviors and their characteristics (Goodson, 1982;Reifel, 1984;Caldera et al., 1999;Casey et al., 2008;, in this study we consider how children engage in digital block play and the role of children's age, gender, and spatial skills in this play. ...
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Spatial play contributes to children’s early development of spatial skills, which are foundational for STEM achievement. A growing genre of spatial play for young children is digital block play. We asked how 3- to 6-year-old children ( N = 117) engaged in digital block play and whether children’s age, gender, and spatial skills were correlated with this play. Children completed a spatial skills assessment and played a popular digital block play app, Toca Blocks . We developed a coding scheme that measured children’s play behaviors in the app, and reliably detected individual differences in this play. Children actively manipulated the digital blocks, and there were differences in their block play by age and gender. However, children’s spatial skills were not associated with their play in the app. The present work shows that digital block play supports play behaviors similar to those supported by physical blocks, but whether and how digital block play facilitates spatial learning is still unknown. The results are discussed in terms of potential ways to implement digital spatial play apps that might engage children’s spatial skills and support their spatial and STEM learning.
... Block construction tasks are part of the heterogeneous class of spatial reasoning skills, which have been shown to predict various aspects of academic and career achievements (Hsi, Linn, & Bell, 1997;Kell, Lubinski, Benbow, & Steiger, 2013;Sorby, 1999;Stannard, Wolfgang, Jones, & Phelps, 2001;Verdine et al., 2014;. The broad use of block construction to capture cognitive ability (e.g., Brosnan, 1998;Caldera et al., 1999;Casey et al., 2008;Groth-Marnat & Teal, 2000;Nath & Szücs, 2014;Richardson, Hunt, & Richardson, 2014) may lie in its apparent simplicity as an activity, combined with its actual complexity as a cognitive task, whose solution is realized through action. Like assembling furniture, driving a car, or preparing a meal, block construction tasks require serialized step-by-step motor actions that are guided by complex cognitive skills. ...
... Bailey's (1933) coding method characterizes block construction based on an observer viewing a photo of an end-product structure, and then uses rating criteria that include the appearance of planning, complexity, and execution as measures of construction quality. More recent studies report broad strokes outcome measures, such as time to complete a structure (Akshoomoff & Stiles, 1996;Frick, Hansen, & Newcombe, 2013), binary measures of block placement as correct or incorrect (Brosnan, 1998;Hoffman et al., 2003;Stiles & Stern, 2001;Stiles, Stern, Trauner, & Nass, 1996), or summary ratings for the complexity, planning, or organization of free-play block designs (Caldera et al., 1999;Casey & Bobb, 2003;Hanline, Milton, & Phelps, 2009;Stiles & Stern, 2001;Stiles-Davis, 1988). Some studies also characterize the types and number of errors during a block copying task (Verdine et al., 2014;Verdine, Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek, & Newcombe, 2016), and others examine actions of assembly and disassembly (Kamii, Miyakawa, & Kato, 2004), but these descriptions are limited and relatively coarse. ...
Spatial construction—the activity of creating novel spatial arrangements or copying existing ones—is a hallmark of human spatial cognition. Spatial construction abilities predict math and other academic outcomes and are regularly used in IQ testing, but we know little about the cognitive processes that underlie them. In part, this lack of understanding is due to both the complex nature of construction tasks and the tendency to limit measurement to the overall accuracy of the end goal. Using an automated recording and coding system, we examined in detail adults’ performance on a block copying task, specifying their step‐by‐step actions, culminating in all steps in the full construction of the build‐path. The results revealed the consistent use of a structured plan that unfolded in an organized way, layer by layer (bottom to top). We also observed that complete layers served as convergence points, where the most agreement among participants occurred, whereas the specific steps taken to achieve each of those layers diverged, or varied, both across and even within individuals. This pattern of convergence and divergence suggests that the layers themselves were serving as the common subgoals across both inter and intraindividual builds of the same model, reflecting cognitive “chunking.” This structured use of layers as subgoals was functionally related to better performance among builders. Our findings offer a foundation for further exploration that may yield insights into the development and training of block‐construction as well as other complex cognitive‐motor skills. In addition, this work offers proof‐of‐concept for systematic investigation into a wide range of complex action‐based cognitive tasks.
... Unstructured tasks are more open-ended, allowing children to create their own structures without being given specific goals, i.e., "Build the best thing you can with these blocks" (Caldera et al., 1999, p. 860). In structured activities, children, on the other hand, copy and reproduce a specific structure from a design (Caldera et al., 1999;Stiles & Stern, 2009). Structured activities focused on improving skills in sorting and classifying blocks and sometimes focused on "...estimation, measurement, patterning, part-whole relationships, visualization, symmetry, transformation, and balance" (Casey & Bobb, 2003, p. 2). ...
Conference Paper
Full-text available
Block building activities help develop students' spatial reasoning, but few studies focus on the development of block building skills beyond preschool. We worked with four kindergarten, four first grade, and four second grade students to learn more about their Lego block building. We compared students' accuracy, building strategies, and spatial language as they used manuals versus pictures of final Lego structures (presented in color versus grayscale) to build two Lego structures. On the first structure, students using color manuals or pictures had an easier time choosing correct bricks but had difficulty correctly placing them; students using grayscale manuals or pictures had difficulty picking the correct bricks but placed them more accurately. By the second design, students did better with the manuals, regardless of color. Students need more support to use specific spatial language and building with depth versus height.
... Theories have been offered to explain such differences on the basis of biological/hormonal factors (35)(36)(37)(38)(39), gender orientation and gender stereotypes [(35, 38), for wider discussion see (40)], socialization and play experience (35) and evolutionary pressures (41, 42). However, others argue that differences in spatial ability are often not present or are small (30,40,43,44). Furthermore, evidence suggests that spatial skills are malleable, and can be improved through training (45)(46)(47), and . ...
Full-text available
Children's spatial cognition abilities are a vital part of their learning and cognitive development, and important for their problem-solving capabilities, the development of mathematical skills and progress in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) topics. As many children have difficulties with STEM topic areas, and as these topics have suffered a decline in uptake in students, it is worthwhile to find out how learning and performance can be enhanced at an early age. The current study is the first to investigate if dog-assisted and relaxation interventions can improve spatial abilities in school children. It makes a novel contribution to empirical research by measuring longitudinally if an Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI) or relaxation intervention can boost children's development of spatial abilities. Randomized controlled trials were employed over time including dog intervention, relaxation intervention and no treatment control groups. Interventions were carried out over 4 weeks, twice a week for 20 min. Children were tested in mainstream schools ( N = 105) and in special educational needs (SEN) schools ( N = 64) before and after interventions, after 6 weeks, 6 months and 1 year. To assess intervention type and to provide advice for subsequent best practice recommendations, dog-assisted interventions were run as individual or small group interventions. Overall, children's spatial abilities improved over the year with highest increases in the first 4 months. In Study 1, typically developing children showed higher scores and more continuous learning overall compared to children with special educational needs. Children in the dog intervention group showed higher spatial ability scores immediately after interventions and after a further 6 weeks (short-term). Children in the relaxation group also showed improved scores short-term after relaxation intervention. In contrast, the no treatment control group did not improve significantly. No long-term effects were observed. Interestingly, no gender differences could be observed in mainstream school children's spatial skills. In study 2, children in SEN schools saw immediate improvements in spatial abilities after relaxation intervention sessions. No changes were seen after dog interventions or in the no treatment control group. Participants' pet ownership status did not have an effect in either cohort. These are the first findings showing that AAI and relaxation interventions benefit children's spatial abilities in varied educational settings. This research represents an original contribution to Developmental Psychology and to the field of Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) and is an important step towards further in-depth investigation of how AAI and relaxation interventions can help children achieve their learning potential, both in mainstream schools and in schools for SEN.
... First, parents afford children opportunities to manipulate toys and other objects that exercise spatial skills, such as encouraging construction with blocks or legos, doing arts and crafts, and completing puzzles (e.g., Levine, Vasilyeva, Lourenco, Newcombe, & Huttenlocher, 2005;Sonnenschein et al., 2018). Caldera et al. (1999), for instance, found that preschoolers' preference for playing with blocks and using art materials positively predicted children's visual-spatial skills. More recently and using a US nationally representative sample, Jirout and Newcombe (2015) showed that, irrespective of gender and socio-economic backgrounds, children who played more often with spatial toys (i.e., puzzles, blocks, and board games) had higher spatial scores as compared to those who played less frequently. ...
Children's exposure to everyday math talk contributes positively to their early math development, yet little is known about family everyday math in culturally and linguistically diverse communities. The present study described the spatial language used by 75 low-income, bilingual, Latine caregivers as they taught their preschoolers to set a table for a birthday party. Forty percent of caregivers' content-rich utterances contained math references, half of which were spatial terms. “Where” spatial references were the most frequent and used to provide instructions. Analyses comparing Spanish and English interactions showed variations in spatial language types and manners of use, as well as in the relation between adult and child math talk. Results underscore the need to build foundational knowledge in early math with culturally and linguistically diverse families, and to encompass a wide range of everyday adult-child interactions, in an effort to forge equitable STEM initiatives and practices.
Research Findings: Although the importance of block play to children’s spatial ability has been recognized globally, little is known about children’s use of spatial frames of reference during spatial processing. This study investigated the intervention with guided block play to promote children’s use of their intrinsic frame of reference, an identified effective frame of reference for spatial information. Participants included 42 kindergarten children (Mage=67.12 months, SD = 3.91, 48% girls) and 42 pre-kindergarten children (Mage=55.80 months, SD = 3.63, 57% girls) from one public kindergarten in Shanghai, China. A quasi-experiment method was used with a four-month intervention program designed for the experiment groups. Statistically significant differences were identified in the performance of the spatial tasks between the experiment and control groups in both kindergarten and pre-kindergarten children after the intervention. The results revealed that block-play interventions can effectively increase children’s ability to use their intrinsic frame of reference and their preference in using this frame for spatial representations. Practice or Policy: These findings provided a new perspective on analyzing children’s spatial competence and supported the benefits of block play interventions with empirical evidence.
Block building—a prevalent play activity—allows children to practice and develop spatial skills, including learning about the intrinsic properties and extrinsic spatial relations of blocks. Performance on block building taps individual differences in spatial skill and relates to later science and math skills. However, studies of block building typically ignore moment-to-moment block-building behaviors, and rarely target children from diverse backgrounds. We observed the real-time block-building behaviors of 120 5-year-olds from African American, Dominican, Mexican, and Chinese backgrounds as they attempted to replicate 3D block structures built by a researcher. For each structure, we coded time spent building, attention to the target structure, alignment of structure with the target, intrinsic and extrinsic errors, and final success. Alignment and checking related to low errors and high success, with Chinese children showing the most alignment, checking, and success. Shifting attention from “performance” to “process” sheds light on real-time learning during spatial tasks.
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Ein wichtiger Teil des Curriculums für Schüler mit geistiger Behinderung ist die Vorbereitung auf eine sinnvolle Arbeitstätigkeit. Mit Blick auf mögliche Beschäftigungsfelder kommt der Förderung handwerklich-technischer Kompetenzen eine immense Bedeutung zu, da in den Werkstätten für behinderte Menschen (WfbM) häufig Tätigkeiten in diesem Bereich ausgeführt werden (Bundesagentur für Arbeit, 2010). Dem Konstruktionsspiel werden erhebliche Potenziale bei der Förderung von Kindern mit und ohne Behinderung zugeschrieben (Fischer, 1992; Kreuser, 1995; Pfitzner, 1994; Wendeler, 1990). Auch wird ein direkter Zusammenhang zwischen handwerklichen Fähigkeiten und Konstruktionsspiel gesehen (Pitsch, 2003). Empirische Belege für diese Positionen existieren allerdings kaum. Dennoch ist der Zusammenhang von handwerklich-technischen Tätigkeiten und Konstruktionsspiel theoretisch gut begründbar und es kann angenommen werden, dass für beides eine spezifische, abgrenzbare Fähigkeit benötigt wird. Diese Fähigkeit kann als Konstruktionsfähigkeit bezeichnet werden. Ein Training mit Konstruktionsspielzeug sollte sich positiv auf die Entwicklung der Konstruktionsfähigkeit von Kindern und Jugendlichen mit geistiger Behinderung auswirken und eine sinnvolle Vorbereitung auf handwerklich-technische Tätigkeiten darstellen. Ziel der Arbeit ist es daher, ein im Unterricht häufig eingesetztes Material aufzubereiten und damit eine evidenzbasierte Förderung der Konstruktionsfähigkeit von Schülern mit geistiger Behinderung zu ermöglichen. Dazu muss nachgewiesen werden, dass Konstruktionsfähigkeit als eigenständiges Konstrukt betrachtet werden kann. Weiterhin ist ein Trainingsprogramm zu entwickeln und dessen Wirksamkeit nachzuweisen. Um den Wirksamkeitsnachweis eines Trainings erbringen zu können, wurde in Vorstudien zunächst ein diagnostisches Verfahren zur Erfassung der Konstruktionsfähigkeit entwickelt und ein Förderprogramm pilotiert. Die Ergebnisse sind in Kuhl und Ennemoser (2010) veröffentlicht. Auf den Ergebnissen der Pilotstudien aufbauend waren die Ziele der Hauptstudie 1) der Nachweis, dass Konstruktionsfähigkeit ein abgrenzbares Konstrukt ist und 2) die Evaluation eines Trainings der Konstruktionsfähigkeit in einem Prä-Posttest-Kontrollgruppendesign. An der Studie nahmen 46 Schülerinnen und Schüler (26 weiblich, 20 männlich) mit geistiger Behinderung teil. Zur Erfassung der Konstruktionsfähigkeit wurden die in den Pilotstudien entwickelten Skalen zur Konstruktionsfähigkeit eingesetzt (Skala Bauklötze, Skala Lego, Skala Baufix). Zusätzlich wurden konstruktnahe und konstruktferne Außenkriterien erhoben. Nach dem Vortest wurde die Gesamtstichprobe in drei Gruppen eingeteilt. Die erste Gruppe (N = 17) erhielt ein Training der Konstruktionsfähigkeit mit dem Konstruktionsspielzeug Lego. Die zweite Gruppe (N = 13) erhielt ein Training des induktiven Denkens in Anlehnung an die Konzeption des Denktrainings für Kinder I von Klauer (1989). Die dritte Gruppe (Kontrollgruppe ohne Training; N = 16) erhielt keinerlei zusätzliche Förderung. Nach sechs Monaten wurde eine Follow-up-Erhebung durchgeführt. Aus schulorganisatorischen Gründen konnte eine Schule an dieser nicht teilnehmen, so dass sich die Stichprobe zum Follow-up auf N = 16 verringerte. Die Skalen zur Konstruktionsfähigkeit wiesen zufriedenstellende Item- und Skalenkennwerte auf und können daher als geeignetes Diagnoseverfahren angesehen werden. Korrelations- und Regressionsanalysen lieferten Evidenz für die These, dass Konstruktionsfähigkeit ein eigenständiges, abgrenzbares Konstrukt ist. Allerdings zeigte sich auch, dass nur die Skalen Lego und Baufix spezifisch Konstruktionsfähigkeit erfassen. Die Skala Bauklötze hingegen prüft stärker allgemeine räumliche Fähigkeiten. Im Hinblick auf die Evaluation des Trainingsprogramms zeigte sich eine hochsignifikante Leistungsverbesserung der Konstruktionstrainingsgruppe im Vergleich mit den beiden Kontrollgruppen beim Bauen mit Lego und Baufix. Die Effektstärken lagen dabei im mittleren Bereich. Der Transfer auf Baufix belegt, dass die Leistungssteigerung nicht nur auf einer reinen Verbesserung der Performanz beruht, sondern es zu einer echten Kompetenzsteigerung gekommen ist. Bei der Skala Bauklötze konnte keine signifikant bessere Leistungsentwicklung der Konstruktionstrainingsgruppe beobachtet werden. In fast allen Außenkriterien war die Leistungsentwicklung der drei Gruppen vergleichbar. Das ist ein Beleg für die spezifische Wirksamkeit der Trainingsmaßnahme. Ein tendenzieller Effekt zeigte sich beim Verständnis von Präpositionen. Da Präpositionen anhand des Materials explizit im Training behandelt wurden, spricht dies aber nicht gegen die Spezifität des Trainings. Längerfristige Trainingseffekte konnten nicht abgesichert werden. Daher muss überlegt werden, wie die längerfristige Wirkung des Trainings verbessert werden kann. Mögliche Ansätze dafür werden diskutiert.
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How does parental causal input relate to children's later comprehension of causal verbs? Causal constructions in verbs differ across languages. Turkish has both lexical and morphological causatives. We asked whether (1) parental causal language input varied for different types of play (guided vs. free play), (2) early parental causal language input predicted children's causal verb understanding. Twenty-nine infants participated at three timepoints. Parents used lexical causatives more than morphological ones for guided-play for both timepoints, but for free-play, the same difference was only found at Time 2. For Time 3, children were tested on a verb comprehension and a vocabulary task. Morphological causative input, but not lexical causative input, during free-play predicted children's causal verb comprehension. For guided-play, the same relation did not hold. Findings suggest a role of specific types of causal input on children's understanding of causal verbs that are received in certain play contexts.
Children who had been observed in preschool when 3 yr. old using an observation schedule (Fagot & Patterson, 1969) consisting of 28 play behaviors were assigned interest scores on the basis of percent of time spent in the various activities. Masculinity scores were then computed on the basis of percentage of significantly preferred sex-typed behaviors. Several years later when one group was approximately 6 yr. old and the other group was approximately 10 yr. old, these same children were given the Children's Embedded-figures Test and rated by their own teachers on intellectual performance. Sex differences were present in the Embedded-figures Test with boys making fewer errors, but only on one variable, music, was there a significant teachers' rating. The relationship of preschool interest patterns to elementary school academic achievement and projected career choices suggested that the play choices in preschool have different meanings for boys and girls and therefore different consequences for later achievement.
2 sets of scales were developed designed to measure the strength of sex typing in children's play patterns in a naturalistic setting. Over a 12-week observational period, the scales based upon those activities showing a sex difference in play preferences appeared to be more stable than those scales based upon adult ratings of masculine and feminine activities. Masculine and feminine activity preferences, as measured by the more stable scales, were correlated with observational measures of other classroom behavior and performance on 3 cognitive tests. These results suggested that (a) many children have already learned to avoid opposite-sex activities by the time they enter nursery school; (b) sex-role learning during the preschool period appears to involve increasing attention to same-sex activities; and (c) the development of visual-spatial ability in boys is related to involvement in masculine activities. The advantages of a behaviorally based definition of masculine and feminine activity preference are discussed.