May 242016

My parents didn’t buy me a set of alphabet blocks when I was a kid. They didn’t have to. I played with my mother’s set of blocks, blocks dating from the early 1930s. They were wonderful blocks. In addition to the ABC’s and the numbers, they had a red and yellow patterns on one side, train and circus puzzles on another, embossed pictures related to the blocks letter, and puzzles of important people in the community (the fireman, the policeman, the train conductor, the soldier, the sailor). The soldier was dressed in a World War I uniform, so I didn’t connect him to the images on the television in the early 1960s. I took it on faith that the sailor was important, even though there were very few sailors in south-central Montana. The paint was somewhat faded and the edges were worn, but I loved those blocks. Indeed, 50 years later, I still have them.

While the new blocks available on the market are not quite as visually interesting and do not have the same range of play possibilities of those produced in the years just after the turn of the century (1900-1925), they are still an important part of childhood and provide a world of play and learning possibilities, not only for children, but for adults as well.

History of Alphabet Blocks

Alphabet blocks were invented by John Locke (yeah…the English Enlightenment philosopher better known for political theory and philosophy) in 1683. In short, these puppies have been around a long time. Not quite as long as the United States, but pretty darn close.

In the early 17th Century, Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (the great, great, great something of the American kindergarten movement), refined Locke’s idea, by imprinting the letters on carved wooden blocks.

The blocks available from a variety of outlets (ours come from Melissa and Doug and Maple Landmarks) are the descendents of the blocks created by a fellow named S.L. Hill, of Brooklyn, New York, who came up with a method of printing multiple colors and embossing wood. He is primarily responsible for making alphabet blocks commercially feasible.

In 2003, somewhat overdue, alphabet blocks were inducted into the Strong Museum’s National Toy Hall of Fame.

readFrederick Froebel’s Gift: Connecting the Spiritual and Aesthetic to the Real World of Play & Learning (Provenzo, American Journal of Play, Summer 2009)

The Strong Museum in Rochester New York (one of the 5 coolest museums in the United States)

Alphabet Block Games: Uses of ABC blocks beyond their presumed play life…

Perhaps it comes from being located in a 143 year old train station, but we believe in adaptive reuse. This extends to alphabet blocks. Under normal conditions, most folks set aside the alphabet blocks or sell them off at the first yard sale of the summer without thinking about their other uses. In an effort to give you the most bang for your buck and suggest some ways to incorporate those small wooden alphabet blocks in your family time, we would like to make some alternate suggestions.

First, if your blocks did not come with a small canvas bag, pick up a small tote bag. Beyond paper, pencils or pens, and an egg timer, it is the only other item you will need for most of the following games.

16 Blocks. (1 or more players)

Required materials: paper, pencils, egg timer, and blocks (plus tote)

Object of the game: find as many words as possible in a set period of time (2 minutes, 5 minutes, etc.). Players need to agree on the timeframe before you start.

Start by setting aside 5 vowel blocks. They will need to be placed face down and shuffled before each round.

Go around the circle and have each player draw a block from the bag and set it face up on the table. The group will continue to draw until there are 14 blocks. The last two players will choose two of the vowel blocks and set them in the middle of the table with the other blocks. The blocks should form a 4 x 4 square.

Set the egg timer to the agreed upon length of time and have at it. Each player writes down all of the words they can find using the 16 letters (14 consonants and 2 vowels). No letters can be used twice. The player with the longest list, wins the round.

Variations on the theme:

  • rather than rewarding the player with the longest list, give points to players who come up with words no one else found.
  • rather than making individual lists, one player acts as a secretary for the round. Players yell (or say, in a well modulated voice) “word” and announce the word they have found. The secretary keeps track of the word list and who made the suggestion. At the end of the round, each player gets two points for every word they found. This variation adds a bit of mayhem to the proceedings and probably isn’t appropriate for more public settings (except, perhaps, schools, where mayhem is a typical part of the day).

The game can also be played as a solitaire game, one very similar to those found in most Dell puzzle books.

Storytellers Anonymous (the more the merrier)

Required materials: blocks plus tote (may want to bring along the egg timer).

Object: to create outlandish stories.

Put the blocks in the tote. Agree on the length of each round (once around the circle, twice around the circle, or a given period of time).

The first player chooses a block from the bag, chooses a side of the block as the “game side” and hands it to the player to his or her right.

The second player must start a story, by creating a sentence using a verb and a noun starting with that letter. If the “game side” of the block is a picture, then the second player must use that word (horse, bee, barn, octopus) and a verb starting with the same letter. At the end of their sentence, the second player draws a block and hands it to the player to his or her right.

The third player must provide the next sentence of the story, using a verb and noun on the block they were handed, and connecting it to the sentence provided by the player before them.

The round continues until each player has had a turn or you have reached the agreed up length of time.

Variations on the theme:

Each player has to repeat all of the previous sentences before adding theirs.

Rather than going in one direction, allow movement in both directions (handing the block right or left).

If you are playing with a small child, let them pick the block and hand it to you. You make up the story. They continue to hand you blocks and you continue to add to the tale. ABC blocks are one of the world’s great storytelling tools.

The Car Trip Game (whoever happens to be inhabiting a seat in a moving vehicle… best used on very long trips)

Required materials: blocks, plus tote

Object: to find interesting stuff out the window. This is a bit of a takeoff on the alphabet sign game.

First, one of the parents or other adults in the car will have to play referee and block chooser.

The referee chooses a block and a side and announces the letter, picture, or number to the other passengers. The first one to spot the letter (a Z), a number (4), or the specific object (a barn) gets a point and the players move on to the next block. The blocks add a random element to more traditional travel games.

Variations on the theme:

Require that the letter or number be part of a license plate or a roadside sign.

Require that the images be found on a vehicle or a roadside sign.

There are hundreds of variations, including drawing two or three blocks and requiring that the letters or numbers or images have to be found in the same location.

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May 242016

My father, for reasons known only to him and perhaps to my mother, decided to go to graduate school in Sociology after nearly a decade as a Presbyterian minister, first in Montana and then in Missouri. As a kid, it never dawned on me to ask why, nor was it apparent that the decision to go back to school had any impact on my life. Ten year olds are far more aware of theme songs on Saturday morning cartoons than the inner workings of their parents minds. Now, nearly 50 years later, I can appreciate the financial impact his decision had on the family’s bottom line, and even more, my parents’ creative response to Christmas.

In 1967, at the advanced age of 10, I was busy memorizing every song on the radio (all of which I joyfully sang out of key), pretending to be a rock star and strumming on a beat up old tennis racket, and trying to practice piano. While my piano teacher thought that I should learn Minuet in G, I was more interested in the Beatles, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Like most kids, I spent hours during the lead up to Christmas, pouring through the Sears Wishbook and writing and rewriting  the list to my parents. I also knew, however, that what ever I received wasn’t likely to come from the catalog.

Beside the obligatory set of Legos, Matchbox cars, and the geology and chemistry sets I couldn’t live without, the vast majority of my presents were made, not by Santa or Sears, but by my parents: a dollhouse, a kitchen including hoosier cabinet, trucks, planes, blocks, and, in 1967, a Paul McCartney marionette, complete with guitar.

In many respects, the presents were magical…especially for the other families in the neighborhood and for families deep in the Ozarks where my father served as a minister. The family a couple of doors down with four kids and less money found a box of trucks and a cloth doll on their doorstep Christmas morning. Another family, catty-corner across the street found a small dollhouse (they had two daughters).

The presents came, not from my father but my mother. J.D. Basket, the contractor who built our house and who lived behind us, would drop off scrap lumber (mostly pine) from his job sites. Nearly every kid in our neighborhood had something made on my mother’s workbench either from JD’s wood or from cloth scavenged from yard sales. While I was at school, she would set aside her miniatures and work on toys. According to Jim, by the week before Christmas, she had produced boxes of toys: cars, trucks, sailboats, cloth dolls, stuffed critters, blocks, ring-toss games, you name it.

Not only did her toys go to kids in the neighborhood, they also went to my father’s churches to be given away to families along with boxes of food and canned goods and oranges and nuts. There is no way of knowing how many toys she made between 1954, when she started, and 1969, when they moved to Virginia. I’m not even sure she kept count. But for a substantial percentage of the kids in my father’s congregations, he was married to Santa.

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