Like red rubber balls and teddy bears, broccoli refusals, skipping rope, sticky fingers, boo boo kisses, bath time pouts, and nighty night tuck ins, I think cardboard boxes are essential kit for little kids.
After a day with my grandchildren and a big cardboard box, it got me 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 too. (And I bet more than once you’ve secretly wanted to as well.) 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.
You see, in the early years, little ones spend a good deal of time getting to know their own 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 own size by crawling in, through, around, over and under things. And cardboard boxes are often the perfect size for this kind of spatial exploration.
2. COMFORT & 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.
Imagine what it’s like to always be the smallest person in a room. Everything is sized for big people. In small spaces, kids feel BIG. (Sometimes it’s good to be small.)
Likewise, the light-weight 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.
Cardboard boxes make ideal hiding places. And kids love to hide. Now, I haven’t made a scientific study of this, but I believe thehiding game may well be the first experience a child has with knowing something you don’t know. And I think this is such a powerful idea when we grow up, as adults 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 a lot and I’ve 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 infer 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 said, the subtle nature of the 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…
Much as been written about this, 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 is waste-not, want-not. 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?”
Children’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 her started, and before you know it, you won’t be able to get her out of it!
Big Box Ideas? If you’ve got a great big cardboard box idea you’ve tried with your kids, I’d love to hear about it! Please post your link here in the comments section. Thanks so much.