Friday, February 22, 2008

Block heads


A brief story in the Times drew my attention to Unit Blocks. You know the sort of toy blocks I'm talking about. Invented by educator Caroline Pratt in the early 19th century. Solid maple. Unpainted. Beautifully machined. The unit block has a 1-2-4 ratio, 1-3/8 inch by 2-3/4 inch by 5-1/2 inch. Hefty enough to give a child a sense of real construction, or to do serious damage when hurled at a sib. Units. Half-units. Double units. Quad units. Pillars. Columns. Triangles. Gothic arch. Roman arch. Buttress. Door. Early in our child-rearing days -- living on $1500 a year as a graduate student -- my mother-in-law gave us $100 out of the blue. An unimaginable sum to spend as we wished. We blew it on the biggest set of Unit Blocks, even though they very nearly crowded us out of our tiny apartment. And never looked back.

I used to set challenges for the kids. Build a tower that reaches to the ceiling. Build a bridge that spans the gap between two rugs. Did they learn the laws of balance, fulcrums, centers of gravity, angles of repose? These are physical principles. They are life principles too.

We had all the other construction sets too, at one time or the other: Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, Erector Set, Mechano, Legos, and, for the grandchildren, K'Nex. All those little twiddly pieces mostly got sucked up in the vacuum cleaner, lost behind sofa cushions, or disappeared down heating vents. But the Unit Blocks endured, impossible to lose or break, as solid as the stone tablets Moses brought down from Sinai.

Our kids would have to say whether the blocks were a significant part of their intellectual (and moral) development. I think it might be Maureen, the scientist, who has them now. At least I hope they are still in family possession, waiting for the great-grandchildren.