Out of the box: Playing with empty boxes is not only fun, it’s educational

Inspire your child’s creativity and imagination with only a box.

Open-ended and free exploration plays a very important role in learning.
Open-ended and free exploration plays a very important role in learning.

Search for toys and activities for young children nowadays and you’ll find a multitude of options from fancy tech toys to apps to complicated play sets all promising to help your child learn. Technology, books and toys can all be effective ways of helping your child learn and explore the world, but sometimes all they really need is a cardboard box.

Despite not being an “academic” activity, open-ended and free exploration plays a very important role in learning. When we give children the freedom and opportunity to explore, create, fail and reassess, we are helping them to form connections in the brain. All engaging experiences – even ones from cardboard boxes – help children learn about the world around them and how they influence it.

Michigan State University Extension has some tips on how to help your child think outside the box:

  • Focus on the process. Your child may just want to smash the box flat and that’s OK. Children don’t need to create a finished product in order to learn – in fact, more often than not it’s through trial and error and exploration where they learn the most. You might not have a pretty product to show off to Grandpa, but you will have a creative child! Remember that sometimes the product is in your child’s mind, instead of on the paper or in the box.
  • Encourage exploration. Encourage children to be creative and express themselves. Allow children absolute freedom to use the boxes how they see fit. A child might sit quietly in a box, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t exploring or creating. Let them use their imagination and materials in a way that is enjoyable and entertaining to them, you never know what they’ll come up with!
  • Don’t be a backseat driver. Let your child decide how to play with their box. Active and self-directed exploration is not only engaging, but educational. Children begin to understand the world by manipulating it – they can act out things they have seen or experienced. By letting them be in control, you are helping them understand the world and express themselves.
  • Mix it up. Provide materials for children to expand their play. You could bring in paints, markers, string, pipe cleaners, towels or sheets, or even stuffed animals. Stumped for ideas? Find some inspiration and help your child make it their own. Try reading “Not a Box” by Antoinette Portis.
  • Let it grow. Instead of trashing a project, find a place where your child can revisit it and add to it. Maybe they’ll build a whole city, or a castle, or a giant dinosaur. Children can learn even more by building on their previous experiences and increasing the complexity of their projects or play.

You don’t need a cardboard box to inspire your child’s imagination. Encourage them to explore and create using whatever is around them, the possibilities are endless. Don’t let your child limit themselves, help them learn to think, grow, explore, create and imagine out of – or even inside of – the box!

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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