Thinking Inside the Box

A friend emailed recently to alert me to a Mr. Boffo comic, noting how it had left him awash in fond childhood memories.  In this panel, a child’s take on the superiority of the cardboard box over mass-marketed, highly structured toys reflected the adage about children opting to play with the box over the toys packaged therein.

The timing of his note was interesting, too, of course, given that the toy-purchasing holiday season is in high gear.   In a follow-up note, he shared a myriad of joyful experiences with cardboard boxes, and the hours of fun he spent with friends:  “We built forts, painted funny faces on them, added ropes to make sleds, made great toboggans, cut holes for our head and arms and used them for armor during sword fights, and they made good hiding places during Hide and Seek,” he gushed.

He added that the box should be an inductee to the National Toy Hall of Fame.

It already is, my friend!  The cardboard box was inducted in 2005.  This organization, founded in 1998, is dedicated to the support of play and the influence of good toys on learning (  I’ve sung its praises in previous posts.  A statement on the web site suggests what teachers and parents know well about the value of the cardboard box:  it’s an economical, versatile plaything that encourages unstructured play and promotes ” … creativity, imagination, and resourcefulness” in children.  It supports play activity “without and end-result” in mind — the natural process-orientation of young children’s play.

The NTHF takes its role seriously, as representatives make decisions based on four important criteria:

-icon status:  the toy is widely recognized, respected and remembered

-longevity:   the toy is more than a passing fad and has enjoyed popularity over multiple generations

-discovery:  the toy fosters learning, creativity, or discovery through play

-innovation:  the toy has profoundly changed play or toy design.*

*A toy may be inducted on the basis of this criterion without necessarily having met all of the first three.

Those of us in early childhood education have recognized for years the benefits of unstructured play with well-chosen objects.  In my own teaching experience over the years, I witnessed children  construct houses, trains, buses, cars, skyscrapers, and cities with cardboard boxes.  These structures often remained in place for weeks as children re-created buildings they’d seen or experimented with all kinds of design concepts.

When the environment is set up in such a way to reflect how young children learn best — by exploring objects and acting on them in many different ways, over extended periods of time — a host of critical developmental gains are experienced.  Children experience the intrinsic pleasure of play, where there is no right or wrong, they learn how to negotiate roles with their peers, build fine and gross motor skills, experiment and solve problems, build early math and science skills and critical thinking skills, and they engage in important intellectually creative activity.

Children know what they need, too.  All you have to do is watch them.   Listen to the child judges on ABC’s “The Toy Box” show, in which toy designers compete to have their toy concept manufactured by Mattel and sold in Toys “R” Us.  Children comment on the physical attraction of a toy,  how they can play with it over and over again, and the many things they can do with it.  Children understand the notion of versatility early on.  Most importantly, though, it boils down to whether the toy is fun.  For the child, fun is engagement.  Yet we seem to persist in purchasing over-priced and highly structured, single-purpose toys.

Babies love the cardboard box, too.  The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) posits this allure as having its roots in infancy, when babies are actively using all their senses to explore the characteristics of objects.  In the case of the box, this could be everything from the smoothness and scent of the cardboard and how one’s body fits inside it, to how objects can be placed inside and later dumped out (early spatial relationships concepts).

OK.  Animals love cardboard boxes, too.  For years, my cat, Fiona, has enjoyed leaping in and out of boxes, hiding inside them, or just sitting in them contentedly, unmoving, as she surveys her surroundings.

So, save those boxes and save some bucks!  Give a kid a box or two, or three, to play with.  Fisher Price, Hasbro, FAO Schwartz and gang will survive.  Their profit margins are safe.  Instead, support children’s growth and development and critical thinking by providing these play materials.  They’ll take it from there.


Your turn!  Can you relate?  How did you play with cardboard boxes when you were young?  Share!

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