Amy Hoffman

During a recent holiday I saw many of my friends post photos on social media of their children or pets playing with their favorite gift – a cardboard box! It reminded me of how much I enjoyed playing with boxes when I was younger, and even as an adult I struggle with, “Should I keep this box or throw it away?”

Why are cardboard boxes so appealing to children? I think the biggest appeal is that the possibilities for imaginative play are endless. Houses, stores, food trucks, and castles can be easily created out of large boxes. Smaller boxes make great cars, wagons, or spaceships. Children can make puppet theaters or costumes from boxes to put on a performance. They can also create a time machine to journey to different lands.

Cardboard boxes can also enhance physical play. Younger children enjoy crawling in and out of boxes, and children of all ages enjoy using boxes as tunnels and in obstacle courses. Older children can make hockey or soccer nets, bowling alleys, or basketball hoops out of boxes.

When I was a preschool teacher, a local business donated stuffed animals for each child in the program to take home. While we loved the animals, we loved the boxes they arrived in even more. Every child in my classroom had their own box, and we encouraged them to decorate them with a wealth of available materials. They were the perfect size for my preschoolers to hide under, use as train cars or airplanes, stack into tall towers, and build a box city. We engaged in box play for at least a month. One of my favorite outcomes was seeing the children gain cooperative skills as they worked together to come up with new ways to use their boxes.

Here is some guidance for encouraging play with cardboard boxes:

  • Encourage exploration by allowing the children to use the boxes however they want to use them.
  • Let children decide how to play with the box without telling them what to do. You can ask open-ended questions but be sure to let them figure out the answers; this will help them to begin to understand the world and to learn other educational concepts.
  • Give children the opportunity to play with boxes over the course of several days (or even weeks). They may add to what they’ve designed, or they may change the box into an entirely new creation.
  • If you don’t have access to bigger boxes (or a place in your classroom to store them), you can add smaller boxes to learning centers. Boxes from brand name foods that children may know are a great addition to the dramatic play center. Older children can copy the words that they know from boxes in the writing center. You can even create homemade building blocks out of smaller cardboard boxes.

The National Toy Hall of Fame, established in 1998, recognizes toys that have inspired creative play and enjoyed sustained popularity. (Side note: It’s located at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. I recommend scheduling a visit if you’re ever in the area; the Strong provides an abundance of fun and learning for children and adults of all ages. Click here for more information.) In addition to brand name toys, such “simple” toys as balls, paper airplanes, blankets, bubbles, and sticks have been inducted. The cardboard box was inducted as a member in 2005.

So the next time you give a gift to a child and all they seem to care about is the box, or the next time you see photos of children playing with the box (instead of the toy) on social media, celebrate what the children are learning, and ask them if you can join in their play.

Let us know some ways that children have enjoyed playing with cardboard boxes in your classroom. Leave a comment below.

Children’s books about box play:

Not a Box by Antoinette Portis

What to Do With a Box by Jane Yolen

Christina Katerina and the Box by Patricia Lee Gauch


Tags : cardboard box playdramatic playEnhancing dramatic playPretendtoysUsing boxes

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