Creating a Beautiful Mess + Surviving the Toddler Years

Ann Gadzikowski, author of Creating a Beautiful Mess.
Essential play experiences for a joyous childhood.
Issues: Playing with blocks; turn-taking games; pretend and make believe; the joys of messes; finding and collecting; and more.

Dawn Dais, The Sh!t No One Tells You About Toddlers.
A guide to surviving the toddler years
Issues: Restaurants are battle zones: don’t even bother trying to feed a toddler; potty training; taking the fun out of vacations; when you’re not the favorite parent.

The Importance of Being a Blockhead

dad kids and tower

dad kids and towerDear Mr. Dad: My husband and I are new parents and our baby is going to have his first birthday in a few weeks. We both work in tech and we’re really excited about getting a tablet for him. There seem to be so many options out there and we’re a little overwhelmed. Should we get an iPad or is there a better choice for toddlers?

 A: Yes, the Internet is full of videos of very young children happily swiping away on their tablets. But the best tablet for your baby is no tablet at all, at least not for a while. In fact, if I had to recommend one toy that’s an absolute must-have for every nursery, it would be a nice set of blocks.

But before I tell you why blocks are so great, let’s talk about why tablets are such a poor choice for babies.

  • The more time a baby spends interacting with a screen, the less time he’ll spend interacting with real, live humans—which is a lot more important. Tablets are great for a lot of things, but they can’t teach verbal- or social skills.
  • Although research on babies and tablets is in its infancy, early results aren’t very pretty. Researchers (and day care providers) are finding that toddlers who spend a lot of time playing with tablets are developmentally lagging in terms of muscle tone and hand-eye coordination (swiping takes a lot less dexterity and coordination than stacking blocks or picking up tiny objects). One app company, Tiggly, has taken some excellent steps to bridge the gap between swiping and developing actual fine motor skills. But the rest of the industry has a long, long way to go.
  • As kids get older, screen time is associated with weight gain, behavior problems, repetitive stress injuries, sleep problems, and low cognitive performance.

Okay, so what’s so great about blocks?

  • They help your baby develop hand-eye coordination as well as grasping and releasing skills.
  • They teach your baby all about patterns, sizes, categories (big ones with the big ones, little ones with the little ones), gravity, balance, and structure. These mini lessons in math and physics lay the foundation for your baby’s later understanding of how the world works.
  • They teach good thinking skills. “Taken from a psychological view-point,” wrote Albert Einstein, a guy who knew a thing or two about thinking, “this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought—before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.”
  • They can help your baby grasp the difference between things he has control over (such as which blocks he wants to use and how high he wants to go), and things he doesn’t (such as the law of gravity, which keeps pulling down his towers).
  • They teach perseverance. Building a tower—or anything else—out of blocks can be an excruciatingly frustrating experience for a baby. But along the way, he’ll learn that if he keeps working on something long enough, he’ll eventually succeed.
  • Research by Dimitri Christakis and his colleagues at the University of Washington has found that kids who play with blocks have better language skills and watch less TV than those who don’t.
  • The best thing about blocks is that they encourage parents to get down on their hands and knees and spend time with their children, playing, laughing, and learning.

Finding the right blocks can be just as overwhelming as finding the right tablet. For reviews and recommendations, do a search at

Building Blocks of Success

There’s a reason blocks have been a part of just about every child’s toy box for hundreds of years: Building things with blocks (and in my house, knocking them down) is just plain fun. But fun is just the beginning. Blocks teach children about colors, shapes, proportions, patterns, spatial relationships, physics, experimentation, and design. They also build hand-eye coordination and stimulate creative thinking—and they have the remarkable ability to adapt to your child’s physical and intellectual age—the older the child, the more complex her block play will be. Best of all, playing with blocks is a great opportunity for parents and kids to hang out together, learn from each other, and strengthen their relationship. Here are some of our favorites.

nanoblocksNanoblocks. Parents and kids can spend time together building a variety of animals and architectural sites from around the world. Since many of the nanoblock sets represent well-know buildings, dads who enjoy architecture will enjoy the process and teaching kids about the original buildings. The one caveat is that these blocks truly are “nano” in size compared to the common Lego-style blocks. Nanoblocks require good eyesight and nimble fingers to control, but they’re great for building attention span, focus, and fine motor skills. We also like the “nano-sized” price point that makes these easily a tenth the cost of the architecture collection of the major competitor. Ages 6+,

Building Blocks Technics. We love Haba’s wooden toys, and this set of blocks and wheels is no exception. What makes this kit extra special, though, is that it introduces young builders to the concept of adding motion to their block creations. More and more research points to the value of using basic toys to stimulate a child’s imagination. And for dad and mom, playing imagination games is a great way to connect with the kids on their level. Ages 3+,

makedoMakedo Freeplay Kit. What a cool concept. The Makedo (pronounced Make Doo—as in, “we’ll have to make do with what we have around the house”), is a container filled with reusable connectors that can help dads and kids turn even the most useless pile of recycling into a great project. Got a few scraps of fabric, an old oatmeal can, an empty tissue box, and a few toilet paper tubes? You can build a robot. Or a plane. Or anything else you can think of. As overused as the expression is, this truly is one of those cases where the only limit is your (and your children’s—assuming you’ll let them play too) imagination. Ages 4+,

litebrix from lite brixLite Brix Building System: Extreme City Lights. When you take the Lite Brix out of the box, they look kind of boring. Almost all the bricks (which, in shape, look a lot like Lego) are the same color—kind of a translucent white. But once you and your child have built the first skyscraper and turn on the battery-powered LEDs, wow! And when you finally get all three up and running, wowie wow! The buildings seem almost alive. Detailed directions make it pretty easy for parents and kids to assemble cooperatively—better yet, let your child read the instructions and show how well you can follow orders. The three buildings that are part of this kit can be rebuilt into a single structure, and can be combined with other Lite Brix kits. But don’t feel limited by the instructions. Lite Brix also combine with Lego, so you can build even bigger and even more amazing structures. Ages 6+,