Melissa & Doug Unit Blocks Week: The History of “Unit Blocks”

We love Unit Blocks! A pile of these natural-wood blocks on the playroom floor always seems to bring out the architect, builder, and dreamer in a child. There’s no “right” way to build with them, so kids can confidently construct cities, spaceships, robots, palaces, and so much more. Unit Blocks build imagination, and they are the ultimate hands-on learning toy!

Here’s a bit about their history:

Rectangular Unit Blocks appeared in their current form in the early 20th century, when they were developed by educator Caroline Pratt. Blocks were around before then: Frederick Froebel’s “Gifts” (including wonderful wooden manipulatives) were featured at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, where Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother was inspired to buy a set for her son. Maria Montessori also used blocks in her curriculum. Even outside of formal sets, it’s easy to picture any child with access to boxes or wood scraps hard at work building towers and cities! What distinguishes modern Unit Blocks and makes them unbeatable for early learning is the UNIT.

The “unit” in Unit Blocks is the length of the smallest common dimension. So, for instance, if the depth of a block is 1 “unit,” the next dimension may be 2 and the longest dimension 4. Children can see, touch and feel how the sides relate to each other, and how this block relates to a block that’s half the size, twice the size, and more. By their very design, Unit Blocks demonstrate proportion and scale, building early math skills and spatial intelligence (see the image below, for example).

It takes two little rectangles to make a square; two squares to make a standard rectangle; two standard rectangles to make a long rectangle. Every side and every dimension can be measured in units.

Best of all, there’s no need to instruct children in how to play and learn with Unit Blocks: The very act of block building helps children sort, classify, relate, make connections, solve problems, and tap into imaginative worlds.

DID YOU KNOW: In the late 19th century, popular toy “Richter blocks” looked similar to these Melissa & Doug Unit Blocks . . . but were made of cement!

As Melissa & Doug Block Week continues, we’ll suggest some activity ideas that let puzzle-loving kids take block play to the next level. But today, we’ll celebrate Unit Blocks in the best way we know how: imaginative play! Come join us—dump out your block bin, plop down on the floor and let’s see what we can build.

We’d love to see what you create! Share pictures of your Unit Blocks creations by emailing them to socialmedia@MelissaAndDoug.com or posting them on our Facebook page!

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  3. [...] during our special “We Love Unit Blocks” week posts, we have shared a bit about the history of Unit Blocks, as well as some ways your little builders can play (and learn!) using various [...]

  4. [...] week on the blog, we covered the many different reasons why we LOVE Unit Block activities and projects. This week, [...]