PUBLISHED: Monday, August 29, 2016

Rosanne Regan Hansel

Published: 2016

Creative Block Play: A Comprehensive Guide to Learning through Building by Rosanne Regan Hansel brings guidance and inspiration to help you support and encourage children during exploration with blocks. This book shows how you can use blocks to teach 21st century skills, create inviting spaces, and extend and inspire learning with unexpected materials.

Learn about Hansel and how she has taught art, written policy, been an administrator, and always been an advocate for children and early learning.

Image of the book Creative Block Play

Can you share a brief timeline of your educational and professional life?

When I graduated with a degree in Art Education from the Pennsylvania State University in the mid-70’s, art teaching positions were practically impossible to come by, so when my daughter Amber was two years old and my daughter Emily was three months old, I started a family day care business. Although this decision allowed me to stay at home with my children and I was incredibly fortunate to have wonderful families as clients, it was by far the most challenging job I ever had!

It wasn’t long after that my husband got transferred to Philadelphia. I remember sitting in the pediatrician’s office near our new home and seeing a brochure for a small, independent elementary school, thinking “this is where I want my children to go to school.” Within a year, I starting working there as a full time aide and the following year, I replaced the retiring art teacher. Looking back on this time, I cannot imagine a more gentle entry into the world of education. I went to school every day with my daughters, often joining them and my students for a family-style lunch in the dining commons, and having the long-awaited opportunity to teach the subject I loved so passionately.

I didn’t know then exactly why I decided to leave that job (other than the long hours and low pay!) It was at a symposium years later in Washington, DC where I heard Loris Malaguzzi speak about creativity that I had an epiphany. He said that creativity doesn’t happen in 45 minute sessions once or twice a week, but that it is woven into everything that children do every day. I realized that not only was I frustrated teaching children in that way, children were often frustrated learning that way. Teaching subjects discretely without embracing the whole child in the learning process didn’t make sense. In the early childhood world I had just entered, developmentally appropriate practices meant teaching the whole child…physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally.

After eleven years as an early childhood administrator in a church preschool, a college lab school and an independent school and with a master’s degree in Early Childhood Leadership from Bank Street College, I had a new vision. Having seen the preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, I wondered why all children in the United States couldn’t have the same deep, creative educational experiences that the children had there. As the Early Childhood Specialist for the Math Science Partnership (funded by a National Science Foundation grant) at Rutgers University working with public preschools in districts throughout New Jersey, I had the opportunity to learn more about New Jersey’s Abbott court decision where three and four year olds in the state’s poorest districts received a free public education and their teachers earned salaries on the same pay scale as K-12 teachers. When the MSP grant ended, I applied to the Division of Early Childhood Education at the NJ Department of Education that had oversight of these publicly funded classrooms. I have invested the last ten years of my life in this capacity working with districts to assure that they have the highest quality preschools possible.


Where can we find you on a typical day?

When I was in the Division of Early Childhood Education, you could often find me in my cubicle researching and writing policy, reviewing budgets or district plans, and preparing presentations, but you could also find me in the field visiting classrooms, housed both in districts and in private provider settings, conducting program evaluations and providing professional development. With a recent move to the new Office of Primary Education, the focus is now toward moving best practices up to kindergarten through grade five. Co-writing the New Jersey Kindergarten Implementation Guidelines and the Approaches to Learning standards for preschool were two of my proudest accomplishments.

Outside of work, the past two years have been primarily devoted to writing this book! Doing this on top of a demanding full time job required many sacrifices, but it also brought me a surprising level of joy that I had not anticipated. What I missed most, though, was time in my garden and with family and friends, and after I retire, I suspect I will get back to writing.


Tell us how your book will help early childhood professionals work better with children?

I talk about this a lot in the book. My research on block play revealed so many critical reasons why blocks should have an important place in the early childhood classroom. For one, children should have as many sensory experiences with three dimensional materials for developing their visual spatial abilities. If teachers are observing and documenting children’s play with blocks, they will become better at supporting children’s learning in all areas. The teachers featured in this book provide excellent examples of how to do that. The photos that accompany these examples beautifully illustrate how this can be accomplished.

Image of blocks from the book Creative Block Play

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you began your career?

I feel like I should issue a huge apology to the children, families and teachers I’ve worked with over the years for all that I didn’t know back then! Actually, it seems the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. And yet, I have learned so much about how children learn and what we need to do to support that learning in real classrooms full of children with challenging behaviors, children with special abilities and disabilities, children who are learning more than one language and children who come from many different cultures.

Very early in my teaching, I used to give out the “Art Star” award to the child in each class who followed directions, tried hard or who reached a particular goal. With all the focus today on children learning self-regulation and perseverance, it would seem like a logical thing to do to encourage those behaviors and dispositions. However, I think it had the opposite effect. When children didn’t get the award, they would feel discouraged. I remember a parent calling me and saying that her child had come home that day crying because she had followed the directions and tried so hard, but didn’t get the award that day. I was crestfallen. My intention was not to make children feel bad, but to motivate and recognize them. I realized (and research confirms this) that rewards don’t work. Having a meaningful, engaging learning experience with the satisfaction of completing a task, especially if it is challenging, and an encouraging teacher who is able to give positive, specific feedback, is the best kind of reward.


What keeps you awake at night?

I admit I am a bit of a worrier and though I try to practice living in the present, I do have sleepless nights from time to time. My most recent worries center around my new grandson. Both my daughter and her husband work full time and both are lucky enough to have maternity and paternity leave. As that comes to an end, they must now wait for one of the infant spots to open up in their employee sponsored childcare centers or one of several other centers where they have placed applications. They have also explored the option of a shared nanny. Assuming they are lucky to find placement in a high quality center or with an experienced nanny, my daughter and her husband will have to stretch their finances to pay for it. I know they are in a better place than many young families, so they have more options and resources, but it will still be a strain for them.

Our country has taken important steps to ease the burden of young families with children who are struggling to find affordable, quality child care, but we need to do so much more.


What’s on your bucket list, career-wise or personally?

Ever since I studied New Zealand in fourth grade, a visit to that country was tops on my bucket list. When I had the opportunity to travel to New Zealand in 2011 to visit my daughter and to join Margie Carter for a study tour of Auckland preschools, I was in heaven! It helped me realize that you have to take advantage of opportunities when they come along because the offer may not come along again. When I was in New Zealand, I had an opportunity to kayak on the Tasman Sea. Ever since, I have wanted my very own kayak. Every year I put it on my wish list for my birthday, Mother’s Day, Anniversary and Christmas. Don’t tell my family, but for a retirement gift, I plan to just buy one for myself (and then I will just have to rent or purchase a lake house to go with it!) When I’m not kayaking, my biggest fantasy is to sit on a nice shady porch or deck overlooking that lake, and to read all those books that I have put on hold for years! When I’m not reading or kayaking, I’d love to have more time to visit family and friends who are living all over the United States. I am always preaching to teachers about the importance of decluttering. Well, it is time to practice what I preach. High on my “to do” list is a promise to do some heavy duty sorting through my stuff…you know the stuff that most educators accumulate over a lifetime? And then, I will do my very best to part with much of it and to live more simply. Finally, I haven’t given up the dream that one day (very soon, I hope), all children living in all parts of this world, will have enough to eat and a safe place to live, will live with families who respect and love them, will receive the highest quality, affordable care and education from teachers who are respected and well-paid, and will thrive on this peaceful planet that has been nurtured and well-tended by its inhabitants. I don’t yet know what part I will play in contributing to this dream…it seems I have been working in some small way toward this all my life…so it is with great anticipation and excitement that I find out what is still left to add to my bucket list.


Learn more and see a full list of titles by Rosanne Regan Hansel.