It’s a well-worn theme of childhood that children would rather play with the boxes in which their toys were packaged than to play the toys themselves. But why? Why the box?
The answer lies in one of the primary functions of play in children’s lives: children use play to make meaning.
Through a series of back-and-forth coos, play is the way that babies learn to differentiate between “me” and “you.” With their whole bodies and full voices, toddlers play through daily welcome routines with peers, running and jumping and fake-falling as a way to say “Hello. I’m happy to see you.” Three-, four-, and five-year-olds develop increasingly sophisticated play scripts portraying the events of their lives: doctor, library, bus, parent and baby, grocery store, school. They add elements of fantasy to deepen the meaning of these moments.
As an adult, this particular purpose of play that I relied on as a child has been transformed by spoken and written language. At the end of the day, for example, I recount my comings and goings with loved ones by telling them what happened. If I encounter something intimidating or unknown, I will quickly send a text or call a friend for support.
Children, with their formal spoken language skills still developing, draw on a rich capacity to play in to process things that I process with words.
Open-ended toys like boxes help children make meaning out of their world because their use is so flexible. Blocks can be built into castles or animal cages or used as fire hoses. Fabric can be pinned into ballerina skirts or folded into baby blankets or left of the floor as hot lava. Cardboard tubes can be telescopes or trumpets or material for art projects.
When children have access to a variety of open-ended toys, it’s like giving them access to a complete lexicon. On the contrary, sitting them down with the shape-sorter is akin to giving me an Italian-English dictionary and forcing me to tell about my day in my non-native tongue.
Why the box? Because a box can be anything.
And with anything, children can make meaning of their world.
Bio: Emily Plank is an author and speaker. Follow her at emilyplank.com or on Facebook, and read more in Emily’s book, Discovering the Culture of Childhood.