The Best Way to Engage Boys in Art Class

There is one item that you can include in your art room that will significantly change the way reluctant boys feel about art class.

What is it? Blocks.

The reason is simple. Clear expectations and consequences are great ways to curb unwanted behaviors in the art room. But, sometimes, the lessons and materials you use matter even more. These may be just the hooks students need to see how special art class really is.

This idea all started with my mentor and elementary art teacher, Ms. Spears.  She had a set of blocks that were available for students to use when they finished early. The boys (and some girls) were magnets to this center. At the end of class, she would take photos of the elaborate finished creations and put them up on a wall of fame.

I purchased a box set of Keva Planks my first year of teaching, and have since added several more sets for my art room. These blocks are a special treat for kids. Because my curriculum is so jam-packed with content, there is very little free time.  When kids do finish early, I never feel bad about allowing a few extra minutes of architecture time.

Why would I feel bad? Well, the administration is very focused on kids being engaged in learning outcomes at all times, and I agree. No fluff here!

It’s easy to justify a class set of blocks on so many levels!

When students build with blocks, they are working on collaboration, innovation, working in 3D, practical life skills, concentration, perseverance, patience, creativity, and sharing. The list goes on!

However, there are a few challenges in offering something this enticing in the art room.

These are the 3 biggest challenges I’ve encountered with allowing students to build in 3D.

1. Students rush through the regular project in order to get to the blocks.
I will usually limit only certain days that blocks are available. Or, I will check for quality work before they are allowed to use the blocks, and send them back to work if it’s not up to par.

2. Students want to build large forms on their own without sharing.

3. Students are too rough with the blocks.
Think catapults, blocks flying through the air, and roughly knocking down towers.

So, I created the following rules into a handy poster that I post down near the carpet where they build as a constant reminder.

Overall, the benefits outweigh the challenges, and I will have a class set of blocks in every classroom I teach in. Middle school students come back to the art room begging to use the blocks one more time. It’s also something my old classmates talk about at reunions. A treasured memory!

The boys (and girls) in my art classes beg me to get out the blocks. They come get them during indoor recesses (I loan them out), and they are so proud when I take their photos next to the creations and display them in the yearbook. It’s just the “hook” some students need to feel engaged and connected to an art form and has improved my reach to all students in the art room.

Do you allow students to build in 3D? Tell us about it! 

What are other ways you engage reluctant boys (and girls!) in the art room?

Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • If the students have finished their assignment, I’ve found that some teachers are letting them play the art games at Artsology:

  • Cathy

    I am running out to Target tonite to purchase a set of blocks! :)

    When I first started reading this post I automatically thought of the “challenges” that you addressed a little further down. Your solutions to those challenges were really good. I like the poster also as a reminder.

    This post was interesting to read because I have found in some of my art classes (at all grade levels) that it is more difficult to engage more of the boys than girls. On the other hand, it can be difficult to engage both sexes at the middle school level. 

  • I keep a tub of LEGOS in my room that is always a HIT! I might have to go out and buy some blocks too. :) I heard a suggestion once to buy foam blocks made for the bathtub- no tumbling noises! 

    • Legos are a great idea, too! Because my room did not have a door, I think I was extra paranoid of students being too noisy. The silent blocks would be perfect, esp for the younger, more distracted kids. Thanks, Amanda!

  • I have a set of art centers that students can choose from if they finish early.  The centers I use are: Architecture Center – legos; Sculpturing Center-modeling clay; Whiteboard Drawing Center-whiteboards & dry erase markers; Art Games-like Escher puzzles, patterning blocks, tangrams; Art Toys -a mini etch-a-sketch, etc.; and Sculpturing Center-a set of the odd plastic shapes toys you can find in a museum gift shop to make abstract sculptures.  I also have sketchbooks and an art library and now have stopped rid of the “Free Draw” time as now these are much more active uses of creative play.
    My student sit on a carpet as not to disturb others trying to finish work and are actively engaged in the creative process.  Legos, Clay and Sculpturing are my top boy centers, the girls love the Whiteboard and clay center.

  • erica

    Jessica BLOCKS rock! I just added them last year to my curriculum, we build a city out of blocks then draw it and it couldn’t have been a bigger hit. Then I keep them available for students throughout the year. Although they were such a big attraction that students were rushing some projects so I had to put them away and reintroduce them later. 

  • Denise

    What a great idea! We did projects based on block with kinders a few years back-now that I’m up at middle school I hadn’t given it a thought-any suggestions out there for middle school friendly blocks?? Should I go smaller? Legos? Thanks!

    • Denise,
      The Keva Planks are great for all ages. They even have parent/student competitions with these. The box comes with a book that has ideas of what to build, and most are way too advanced for my elementary students, so your middle school students might love them. There are also some neat magnetic building sets with little plastic straw-like pieces with metal balls connecting. These could be intriguing for middle schoolers, too! 

  • cheddar130

    These kids are SO plugged-in, playing with blocks is a “real” treat for them. I’ve been buying Jenga Blocks at yard sales and thrift stores. I put out an email asking teachers for their incomplete sets too. I’ve accumulated a huge bin and the kids are crazy about them! Sometimes they’ll count out 56 and play Jenga, but usually they just build. I really like your set of rules!

  • In addition to blocks, I use the most fabulous magnetic architecture sets and fractiles math design sets, both made by american companies.  They come with large steel boards to build on and the kids eat them up!  One of the favored activities with early finishers.  I highly recommend.  Being magnetic the pieces don’t bounce away and get lost and I have even had kids use them on the front of my desk making beautiful designs.  Magnets ROCK!

  • Jennyg

    I love using blocks as a “free choice activity”! Legos are also a big part of my boy free choice time.
    I also have a box of plastic bugs they love to build around. I love to see how my students interact in this way. It really helps me as an art teacher see another side of their personalities. I am including plastic animals this year. And thanks to this post I am bringing in my plank blocks my husband brought home from France a few years ago for our children who are sadly done with them.

  • Blocks have been a favorite of mine since childhood.  I have a variety of blocks.  Pattern blocks are small colorful geometric shapes and can be used to teach symmetry (basic and radial) as well as patterns. Unit Blocks are the standard blocks that are geometrically proportional found in preschools and kindergartens and I know they were my favorite thing about kindergarten.  I have found that all ages like them.  In fact my middle school students begged to build with them when I had them available for the elementary students.  You can purchase them in foam too which are less expensive and provide a contrast in terms of weight.  I also have plank blocks (mine are called Citiblocks).  I got my blocks at Costco last year and they were incredibly reasonable.  Another product I discovered recently which is great for independent and collaborative building is Straws and Connectors which are very reasonable at Discount School Supply.  You can really build big with them! Dominos, cuisenaire rods, alphabet blocks, Jenga, etc….are all great for kids to build with!  Adding in props such as plastic animals or beanie babies definitely adds to the play and imagination! There are some wonderfrul books like Roberto the Insect Architect (Nina Laden) to read to kids.  My favorite teacher resources when it comes to blocks are Building Structures with Young Children (Chalufour and Worth) and A Constructivist Approach to Block Play in Early Childhood (Wellhousen and Kieff).  This past year I taught a class which was solely for block construction and the kids loved it!

  • Tracy

    I love Keva planks. I purchased them 4 years ago, they are magic. It is a favorite station of every boy I teach when we have a free choice art class. At the end of last year a 4th grader built a tower on two planks, about 10 feet tall. I actually took out a ladder for him to keep going. The students loved it, we made videos, took photos. Students love that I take photos of their creations. I have three rules, share, no throwing and  no knocking down towers, you must take them down carefully.

  • Susie Belzer

    I love these blocks too!  I was first introduced to them when I taught in a 4K room- loved them there.  After reading this post I went out and bought the 400 ct set for my art room and have created a space for them in my ‘finished corner’.  I need to make a rule sign now, what a good idea!

    • You can download my rules sign on the Visuals page if you want! Have fun creating!

  • Tina Hormann

    Fantastic idea! I love it