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Smell the Coffee: Thinking inside the box

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I like the way Ohio teacher Pete Kaser thinks.

Kaser removed every one of the toys in his preschool classroom and replaced them with empty cardboard boxes.

"I wasn't getting the imagination out of the children that I wanted," said Kaser in an interview with the Huffington Post.

Kaser said the problem with typical toys is that a pretend phone is always a phone, a train is always a train, and a cash register is always a cash register. But give a kid a box and it can be anything.

The children didn't ask for their toys back. They didn't even ask where their toys had gone. Rather, they immediately began coming up with ideas for their own creations using the boxes and other raw materials, such as egg cartons and paper towel tubes that their teacher provided.

Kaser observed children who had previously been shy and reserved taking on leadership roles with regard to what to do with the boxes.

I remember when my own daughter was little, she nearly always got more excited over the boxes than what came inside them. I remember one Christmas morning when Celeste was 3 or 4 years old and I was working to remove a Teddy Ruxpin type of bear from its box.

She was hopping anxiously from foot to foot as I struggled to free the toy from all the wires and straps that kept it secured in the box. She was positively bursting with excitement, and when I finally got it free from all the bindings, I thought she was going to snatch it away from me. Instead, she snatched the box and immediately began wiggling herself down inside it.

It was a tight fit, but she managed to scrunch herself down small enough that she could look out the little cellophane window.

I don't believe she ever played with the bear. But she wore out the box.

She so loved that box that I brought home others, one in particular was large enough that she could easily climb inside to play, with room to spare. She directed me to where she wanted windows and doors to be cut, and then decorated the box with random drawings and stickers.

That box became a fixture in our living room for a while, but gradually become ragged and sagging and crusted with food. Eventually, I began to worry that it might harbor disease, but Celeste so loved her box that I couldn't bear the idea of taking it away. I decided to gradually wean her from the box by moving it to less accessible places, but that only made it worse. Instead of just a playhouse, the box became a playmate, since it was now playing hide-and-seek.

When it finally became so nasty I knew it had to go, I dragged it out to the curb on trash day. That evening Celeste made one quick search of the house, then moved on -- to the new box I'd brought her.

There was something fascinating with how she could take a simple box and transform it from ordinary packaging into a castle or a tunnel or a car.

Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, believes that simple empty boxes prompt children to use their imaginations, and that by doing so, they become more readily able to consider alternatives that aren't given to them. They become better at coming up with their own possibilities and alternatives and develop planning skills.

"Imagining different things a box could be is really an important intellectual feat," Gopnik told the Huffington Post. She said fancy electronic learning toys aren't necessarily any better than something as simple as a box or craft materials.

Anyone who has ever spent time with small children has witnessed children abandoning fancy toys in favor of the packaging the toy came in. Boxes become a blank canvas for their imaginations. A child's mind becomes supercharged by the possibilities, rather than having their play dictated by what the toy is supposed to be, how it's supposed to be played with.

If I had those early Christmases with Celeste to do over again, I'd buy far fewer toys. And bring home more empty boxes instead.

Reach Karin Fuller via email at karinfuller@gmail.com.


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