Like red rubber balls and teddy bears, skipping rope, sticky fingers, boo-boo kisses, bath time pouts, and nighty-night tuck-ins, I think cardboard boxes are part of the essential kit for little kids.
And the granddaddy of them all are refrigerator boxes.
Guess what arrived at my house the other day? (Hee-hee-hee!)
After spending a day with my grandchildren and a big cardboard box, I got to thinking about why kids love cardboard boxes and why cardboard boxes are great for kids.
Six Learning Dimensions of a Cardboard Box (Refrigerator or Otherwise)
1. Spatial Awareness. Babies do it. Toddlers do it. Preschoolers do it. (And I bet more than once you’ve secretly wanted to do it, too.) The first thing little kids do when confronted with a cardboard box is try to get in it. Cute as this is, there’s actually an important reason why they do this. It’s called spatial awareness.
In the early years, little ones spend a good deal of time getting to know their bodies, and with that comes the necessary question, “How big am I?” But they’re growing, so the answer to that question keeps changing. That’s why kids are constantly testing their size by crawling in, through, around, over, and under things. Cardboard boxes are often the perfect size for this kind of spatial exploration.
2. Comfort and Security. There’s also an emotional component to seeking out small spaces. Right from the start, children are soothed by a sense of being bundled up or embraced in mommy’s arms. This need for “denning” continues throughout childhood (and I would argue throughout life) because in many ways, it’s a subconscious return to the comfort of the womb.
3. Empowerment. Imagine what it’s like to always be the smallest person in a room. Everything is sized for big people. However, in small spaces, kids feel BIG. (Sometimes it’s good to be small.)
Likewise, the lightweight construction of a cardboard box enables young children to move and manipulate an object that is bigger than they are. In other words, cardboard yields to their will.
4. Control. Cardboard boxes make ideal hiding places. And kids love to hide. Now, I haven’t made a scientific study of this, but I believe the hiding game may well be the first experience a child has with knowing something that you don’t know. And I think this is such a powerful idea that, when we grow up, we intuitively get it.
Think about it. The hiding game usually begins with an impish grin as she ducks out of sight. Without even thinking about it, you join the game. “Hmmm. I wonder where Caitlin is? I can’t see her. Is she under the pillow? No. Is she behind the couch? No. Hmmm. Is she on my head? No . . .”
Then comes the big surprise: “Here I am!” And of course, the tone in her voice let’s you know she’s got one up on you. What fun! And what a powerful role reversal that is.
5. Asensory Play. I’ve read and written a lot about the importance of providing children with rich sensory experiences each and every day. Yet asensory experiences play an important role in sensory development as well.
For instance, the humble cardboard box is a great example of an asensory environment. The brown color suggests nothing in particular. The smooth sides imply little. The cube structure defines empty space. The subtle smell lacks distraction. The sound of the cardboard folding is muted and music-less. This very lack of sensory inputs (or perhaps, more accurately, the subtle nature of these sensory inputs) is an essential contrast to the more powerful and deliberate stimulation we traditionally think of when we talk about “sensory play.”
This relief from the sensory world may explain, in part, why kids find the confines of a cardboard box so appealing. And of course, its very neutrality is the blank-slate upon which children so easily imprint their imaginations . . .
6. Imagination. Much has been written about imaginative play, but for my money, the minimalist Not a Box by Antoinette Portis says all that needs to be said on the subject.
Introducing a Big Cardboard Box
For the record, turning a box into a plaything is an eco-friendly first lesson in waste-not, want-not, just remember to remove any staples or other sharp objects first. So when you have the opportunity, try encouraging preschoolers to think about the concept of reusing things for other purposes. For instance, you might explain the purpose of packaging—that the box was designed to protect the product so that it wouldn’t get scratched. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing you can do with a box. Then wonder aloud, “I wonder what we could do with this big box? What do you think?”
A child’s natural curiosity should take over, but if the size of the thing is a bit overwhelming, you might want to encourage a few ideas to get him started, and before you know it, you won’t be able to get him out of it!
Big Box Ideas?
For this post, we focused on oversized boxes, but any size box can be put to reuse for recycled fun. Visit our Cardboard Box Fun board on Pinterest for more activities and ideas. If you’ve tried a great big cardboard box idea with your kids, I’d love to hear about it! Please post your idea here in the comments section. Thanks so much.
Gill Connell is a globally recognized child development authority, specializing in the foundations of learning through movement and play. She provides developmental expertise to parents, preschools, schools, and companies, such as Hasbro, Inc., based on her 30+ years in preschool and primary education. She is the founder of Moving Smart, Ltd., which offers resources, tools, training, and workshops.
Cheryl McCarthy is a former vice president of intellectual property development for Hasbro, Inc. She is a 30-year veteran of the world of children’s play, specializing in young children’s storytelling and entertainment. As executive producer, she managed the creative development of properties such as My Little Pony, Candy Land, Mr. Potato Head, and many other beloved children’s icons. She is currently the creative director at Moving Smart, Ltd.
Free Spirit books by Gill and Cheryl:
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