We have old friends who taught us a lot about parenting. When their children were really little (3 and under) they would go into their bedrooms, the basement,or the playroom, and find toys that they never played with or forgot about and rewrapped them so they had something to open on their birthdays or holidays. Their reasoning was that their children were far more interested in the boxes that the presents came in than the presents themselves. They also liked the colorful paper and ribbons, but it was really all about the boxes.
I imagine that some of you have had this same experience. Not only do young children love boxes, they love laundry baskets, Tupperware, kitchen spoons and spatulas, a roll of toilet paper, and the Sunday paper. You might go out and spend a whole lot of money on a set of Duplos, but when it comes right down to it, your child (ren) may be just as interested in building a pile of spoons from the kitchen drawer as they are in building a pile of Duplos.
Children are natural-born problem solvers. Boxes present so many challenges for the young child. Can I climb into it? Can I stand on top of it? Can I crawl through it? Can somebody find me if I hide in it? What happens when I push it down the stairs? What happens when I put my stuffed animal into it and then push it down the stairs? These questions and so many others come with a large empty box. These are not questions that adults have put forth. They are questions that arise organically from the child’s open-ended play. There are no directions that come with the box, and nobody is asking the child to do something or make something out of it. There is no “right” way to play with a box. It just is.
Open-ended, found materials encourage problem solving. That is not to say that store-bought toys do not; they do of course. However, there is so much opportunity for discovery in the mundane. How many hours did my oldest child spend in front of the Tupperware cabinet? He pulled them out, stuffed them back in, matched the lids with the bottoms, used the tops as frisbees, stacked them tall and knocked them over. All of this occurred without any direction from an adult. He solved his own problems by manipulating and playing with these materials for hours on end. If he couldn’t find a lid, he put that piece into a bigger container one and closed it inside with a bigger lid. He figured out which ones made the most noise when banging on it with a wooden spoon. He discovered that he could put them at various distances across the kitchen floor and jump from one to another, like stepping-stones. He played pretend, he played with space and shape, he played with number, and he played with gusto.
Next time you hear a rumor that someone you know is having a refrigerator or washing machine delivered, do everything you can to get that box that it came it. Your children will uncover all sorts of problems with it and then they will work very, very hard to solve them.