DIY Wooden Unit Blocks

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“Look Mama, I’m making butterflies!”

My eyes were first opened to the potential of unit blocks when I read this post on How We Montessori.  I was intrigued so I requested Teaching Numeracy, Literacy, and Language with Blocks from our state library system.  I highly recommend reading it if you are curious about unit blocks or wonder what the big deal is.

After your read the book you’ll definitely want to start of collection of blocks, but they are expensive!  It’s important (IMO) to stick with true to size, actual unit blocks.  You can add blocks from any source later on and they should still work well as long as they are standard sizes.  A regular unit block is 1 3/8″ x 2 3/4″ x 5 1/2″.

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I have been very happy with Barclay Blocks.  Their prices are reasonable, not as high as some, and they have a large selection of open stock pieces so that you piece together your own set just the way you want it.  They even provide a detailed set of instructions for making your own blocks right on their website.  At the bottom of the instructions page their is a place to order lengths of block stock that are already the right dimensions and just need straight cuts to make them in to unit blocks, half units, columns, etc.  It is MUCH cheaper to buy stock and do the cutting yourself.

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I have done quite a bit of woodworking but I still had to do some research to understand exactly how they suggest cutting the blocks.  You can use a table saw, a miter saw (though they warn against chipping), or a radial arm saw.  The trick is, you need a way to accurately cut several blocks of the exact same length.

If you want to use a miter saw, I suggest the blade mentioned on the instructions page and a setup like this one to help with the repeat cuts.

I opted to build a crosscut sled for our table saw and buy the recommended blade.  There are several tutorials on YouTube, just search “crosscut sled for miter saw”.  It was hard to take the time to build something just to make something else, but I’m so glad I did.  Now that I had the sled I can cut more blocks later and not have to worry about the accuracy.

Here’s a picture of my setup:

imageDon’t worry, Kent knows to stay way back until I unplug the saw.  See the piece of wood clamped on the right side?  The end of the block stock presses against that (to set the length) and then you hold the stock against that taller back board while you push the whole sled across the blade.  In this picture the clamp is set to cut 11″ pieces.  You can see my marks for 5 1/2″ and 2 3/4″ pieces.  The sled keeps the stock from tipping at all and being cut crooked on the ends (causing problems with stacking and building).  I ordered about half of a dozen pieces of stock (thanks to Grandma!) and it took longer to build the sled then it did to cut the blocks.

After being cut, each piece needs to be lightly sanded.  It’s important not to round the corners too much; that would make the blocks tip easily.  I put my palm sander in the vice and quickly ran the blocks over it.  It took a lot longer than the cutting did.

imageKent started playing with them even before they were sanded.

imageThat book I mentioned has a handy chart in the back with a suggestion of types and quantities of blocks for each age.  I started with several standard unit blocks, some half units, (2) double units, and several standard and half unit columns and pillars.  I also ordered 6 small triangles from the open stock instead of trying to cut triangles myself.

imageI wish I had ordered some road plank stock so I’m working on another order that will include several pieces of that.  At just over 3, Kent is way more interested in building roads that constructing houses.  The road planks are thinner and lighter, and having some would free up our regular blocks for stacking and building.  I have also picked out some road intersections and curves, triangular roof joists and roof planks, and a different style of triangle that will work well for making hills and ramps.  Kent loves makes ramps but the rectangular blocks slide off of each other and make it difficult.

IMG_1420There are many options for open stock pieces and we’ll probably pick out more for holiday and birthday presents as the boys grow.  Things like finials and arched doorways will be fun when they are older and want to build more elaborate structures.

If you can find a place that allows for neatly sorting and stacking the blocks it makes it easier to identify and locate the different pieces as needed.  This really speaks to a child’s sense of order, much more so than a big tub of blocks thrown together.  We keep ours in one side of our preschool cabinet for now.

IMG_1426If you have specific questions I’ll try to help.  I couldn’t find any tutorials or pictures of DIY blocks except on the Barclay website so I’m happy to pass on what I learned.

Preschool – Letter D

Kent was 39 months old.  Colt was 15 months old.

Dolphin puzzles from Memorizing the Moments.

Dolphin puzzles from Memorizing the Moments.

Tracing a page from a free Make Way for Ducklings page.  We read the story; it's on our Sonlight P 3/4 reading list.

Tracing a page from a free Make Way for Ducklings page. We read the story; it’s on our Sonlight P 3/4 reading list.

Gluing cotton balls on a dot page.  Later, I gave him a medicine dropper and blue water to put on the cotton balls.

Gluing cotton balls on a dot page. Later, I gave him a medicine dropper and blue water to put on the cotton balls.

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Colt was in his high chair at the table with us during this time.  I gave him a cotton ball.  He pulled it apart... and then ate it.

Colt was in his high chair at the table with us during this time. I gave him a cotton ball. He pulled it apart… and then ate it.

Sorting real and pretend ducks, from the same pack.

Sorting real and pretend ducks, from the same pack.

Doing a puzzle with Grandma.

Doing a dog puzzle with Grandma.

Practical life, cleaning up our popcorn snack.

Practical life, cleaning up our popcorn snack.  He still struggles with sweeping.  I remind him to pull the food to the pan instead of pushing it.

I got this marble track at Goodwill a long time ago.  He loves it!  It has a permanent spot on the kitchen table.  He's allowed to play with it during meals; it seems to satisfy his need to move and keep him at the table longer.

I got this marble track at Goodwill a long time ago. He loves it! It has a permanent spot on the kitchen table. He’s allowed to play with it during meals; it seems to satisfy his need to move and keep him at the table longer.

He's mesmerized.

He’s mesmerized.

I brought the rocking horse down from the attic and Colt learned to ride.  Giddy up boy!

I brought the rocking horse down from the attic and Colt learned to ride. Giddy up boy!

Kent got sick during our two Dd weeks.  I can still wrap him on my back pretty comfortably.  This is a gauze wrap from Babyette on Etsy.

Kent got sick during our two Dd weeks. I can still wrap him on my back pretty comfortably. This is a gauze wrap from Babyette on Etsy.

We labeled the people that start with Dd on our family photo wall.

We labeled the people that start with Dd on our family photo wall.

I am very happy with our choice of Sonlight so far.  "School" is easy when it means cuddling in the chair with my boys all day and reading great books.

I am very happy with our choice of Sonlight so far. “School” is easy when it means cuddling in the chair with my boys all day and reading great books.

"Caps For Sale" is one of Kent's favorites so far.

“Caps For Sale” is one of Kent’s favorites so far.

Do you use Sonlight?  What’s your favorite part?

Preschool – Letter C

Kent was 39 months old.  Colt was 15 months.

The boys got these Eric Carle stacking blocks for their birthday. They are pretty durable and stack well!

The boys got these Eric Carle stacking blocks for their birthday. They are pretty durable and stack well!

Coconut counting cards from a free Chicka Chicka Boom Boom printable pack.

Coconut counting cards from a free Chicka Chicka Boom Boom printable pack.

He wants to write his name so I make dots to guide him.

He wants to write his name so I make dots to guide him.

I'm interested to see if I regret the dots later.  It seems like a nice transition from tracing.

I’m interested to see if I regret the dots later. It seems like a nice transition from tracing.

Colt usually has playpen time while we do work on the floor.  He's transitioning away from a morning nap so he enjoys that quiet time to rest.  On this day he fell asleep leaning on the side.

Colt usually has playpen time while we do work on the floor. He’s transitioning away from a morning nap so he enjoys that quiet time to rest. On this day he fell asleep leaning on the side.

Coloring the things that start with Cc.

Coloring the things that start with Cc.

A friend gave us this cool book that has animals with thick black outlines and rounded corners for easy cutting.

A friend gave us this cool book that has animals with thick black outlines and rounded corners for easy cutting.

He was really, really proud of himself.

He was really, really proud of himself.

I've never put away our kitchen setup.  Surprisingly, Colt likes to stack the bowls and rearrange things but has never pulled the whole thing down on the floor.

I’ve never put away our kitchen setup. Surprisingly, Colt likes to stack the bowls and rearrange things but has never pulled the whole thing down on the floor.

Transferring pom poms, one to one correspondence.

Transferring pom poms, one to one correspondence.

I made up a scavenger hunt with Cc words.  Here we were looking for a Crawling bug.

I made up a scavenger hunt with Cc words. Here we were looking for a Crawling bug.

We had a lot of fun.

We had a lot of fun.

Our assistant happily munched an apple while we checked things off our list.

Our assistant happily munched a pear while we checked things off our list.

I bought a box of alpha-bits cereal and let them have it occasionally for a snack.

I bought a box of alpha-bits cereal and let them have it occasionally for a snack.

At co-op we painted with cars.

At co-op we painted with cars.

Hmm... paint is non-toxic, right? ;)

Hmm… paint is non-toxic, right? ;)

Both boys loved it.

Both boys loved it.

We read many books, including a lot of Cc books from the library and from the Sonlight P3/4 list.

We read many books, including a lot of Cc books from the library and from the Sonlight P3/4 list.

We ended with our last trip to the zoo for the year.

We ended with our last trip to the zoo for the year.

Letter B

Kent was 38 months old, Colt was 14 months old.

I guess we'll call this one to one correspondence practice.  I left him alone with baby carrots and the magnadoodle...

I guess we’ll call this one to one correspondence practice. I left him alone with baby carrots and the magnadoodle…

Bear cave craft

Bear cave craft

It's just coincidence that he made a "b".  He was making a truck.

It’s just coincidence that he made a “b”. He was making a truck.

Our Bible story for "Bb" was Jesus Heals a Blind Man.

Our Bible story for “Bb” was Jesus Heals a Blind Man.

We're using Kinderbach this year and he loves it!  We're learning together.

We’re using Kinderbach this year and he loves it! We’re learning together.

We're doing a preschool co-op group every other week.  It's fun and all the kids seem to like that change of pace.

We’re doing a preschool co-op group every other week. It’s fun and all the kids seem to like the change of pace.

Colt having snack at co-op.

Colt having snack at co-op.

We didn't get the book "We're Going A Bear Hunt" so we watched a reading of it on YouTube.  Then I surprised them and set up a bear hunt in our backyard.  Here they are in the bear cave at the end.  The bears were our Safari Ltd. bears and hid in the leaves.

We didn’t get the book “We’re Going A Bear Hunt” so we watched a reading of it on YouTube. Then I surprised them and set up a bear hunt in our backyard. Here they are in the bear cave at the end. The bears were our Safari Ltd. bears and hid in the leaves.

He was oblivious to me when I took this.  I thought it was so cute, just "reading" the box before breakfast.

He was oblivious to me when I took this. I thought it was so cute, just “reading” the box before breakfast.

Journal 5/21/14

I noticed this nice link-up at Nurturing Learning.  I was thinking it was just a general bloggers’ journal link-up but, alas, it is meant for homeschoolers.  I guess that still fits.  Can you believe my boy is almost 3 and soon to be a real preschooler?

homeschool journal imagemanagingyourblessings.com

In the Schoolroom:  We haven’t been doing many structured activities.  We moved our school shelves upstairs and the upstairs in still under construction so there have been no new trays.  We’ve been taking our time working through the Bible Basics stories.  This week we’re learning about Memorial Day instead.

From the kitchen:
Brian gave me the best compliment this week.  He said I’ve finally learned to make bread as well as our neighbor, Doug.  If you haven’t had Doug’s bread, you’re missing out.  It’s soft and almost as easy to use as store bought bread, but with way more flavor.  Now, mine is too!  Someday maybe I’ll share my secrets.

Praying:
For Wade Dunham, for the family of baby Gray, for a family at church, and for our friends that lost a loved one a few months ago.

Pondering:
How I spend my days.  There has been a lot more memory-making around here lately and a lot more imaginative play (like I said, my boy is almost 3 after all!).

Books I’m Reading: Viewing Violence by Madeline Levine and The Reckoning by Beverly Lewis by my bed.  Hands Free Mama by Rachel Stafford by the couch.  Enough: Finding More by Living with Less on the Kindle.

Clicking Around: I haven’t been reading a lot of blogs or doing much in any groups.  Mostly, my time on the computer has been spent planning and printing off materials for next year.  I’m really excited about A Rhyme a Week.  Kent loves to rhyme and it is such good practice for recognizing different sounds.  He rattles of strings off silly made up words that rhyme, and he’s started noticing when 2 words have the same sounds and asking me if they rhyme (ex:  Mama, does big rhyme with brother?).

In the works:  Our upstairs is still just studs.  The flooring is all laid out but needs to be nailed down.  I need to design the built-ins so I know where to have the electrician put outlets and lighting connections.  We got an estimate for spray foam: around $1500. 

Brian bought an outdoor wood burner to heat the house and the shop.  He has a cement pad poured and electric, gas, and water lines buried.  This means we will have a lot of free space in our basement: the corn stove, holding tank for corn, huge old fuel oil furnace, fuel tank, and I think the 80 gallon water heater are all coming out!  Plus, we should save thousands of dollars in corn and electricity this way.  

Catching Up… February 2014

Someone can move!  He doesn't crawl, but he sure rolls and twists and pulls.

Someone can move! He doesn’t crawl, but he sure rolls and twists and pulls.

A transferring/sorting tray with pouch tops.

A transferring/sorting tray with pouch tops.

Chalks with a heart stencil.

Chalks with a heart stencil.

Colored vinegar with baking soda.  Fun, but it only lasted about 30 seconds and then I had to fill them again.

Colored vinegar with baking soda. Fun, but it only lasted about 30 seconds and then I had to fill them again.

This was part of the Valentine Vehicles Preschool Pack from Trillium Montessori.  I've never done many printables but he really enjoyed this pack.

This was part of the Valentine Vehicles Preschool Pack from Trillium Montessori. I’ve never done many printables but he really enjoyed this pack.

We made all of our Valentine's with the stencil.

We made all of our Valentine’s with the stencil.

"Is It Kind?" cards from the pack.  What a great idea!

“Is It Kind?” cards from the pack. What a great idea!

Land, Water, and Air sorting from the same pack.  I think I see more printables in our future.

Land, Water, and Air sorting from the same pack. I think I see more printables in our future.

I love finding things like this.

I love finding things like this.

Barn time!

Barn time!

Thank you for the Valentine's Day card Grandma! - Love Colt

Thank you for the Valentine’s Day card Grandma! – Love Colt

I had this sticks around from a project and Kent put 2 together and said he made a "K"!  So I made his name.

I had these sticks around from a project and Kent put 2 together and said he made a “K”! So I made his name.

Puzzles!  This must be part of a sensitive period.

Puzzles! He’s doing 60 pieces ones alone.  This must be part of a sensitive period.  I’m amazed!

It's all fun and games... until baby falls and bruises his cheek on the shape house. :(

It’s all fun and games… until baby falls and bruises his cheek on the shape house. :(

You know you had a really bad winter when your 2 year old gets the calf medicine out of the fridge and correctly pronounces the word Penicillin as he treats his sick calf. :(

You know you’ve had a really bad winter when your 2 year old gets the calf medicine out of the fridge and correctly pronounces the word Penicillin as he treats his sick calf. :(

How did you fair this winter?  I am DONE with winter, DONE I say!  It was rough.