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Building with Boxes

pile of boxes

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About this Video

This video clip shows Isaac, a 5-year-old boy, interacting with family members while playing with cardboard boxes in the family’s back yard. Several weeks before the activity shown here, Isaac’s parents and grandparents began collecting a variety of clean cardboard cartons from friends, neighbors, and co-workers. They planned to make the boxes available to Isaac, his sisters, and a cousin who would be visiting them for a holiday weekend. The children ranged in age from 20 months to 7 years.

The adults made certain the boxes were clean and were free of staples and other potential hazards before offering them to the children. Some of the adults got involved in playing with the boxes. They helped cut openings in cartons for windows, doors, and a drawbridge, which are visible on some of the boxes Isaac stacks. They also supplied some bed sheets and other large pieces of fabric, such as the blue one lying underneath one of the boxes.

In this clip, Isaac uses a variety of skills and knowledge as he builds a tall structure out of boxes. He moves vigorously and uses large motor skills to lift, carry, and stack the boxes. He seems to have a general plan in mind, stacking smaller boxes on top of larger ones, which suggests that he understands principles involved in creating a structure that can stand on its own. He uses a few words to communicate his ideas about the structure when his father gets involved. He and his father work collaboratively, with Dad primarily following his son’s lead.

The boxes promote some collaborative play between Isaac and one of his sisters. When the structure is complete, Isaac’s father asks what he is going to do with it. His sister has an idea and invites Isaac to knock the boxes down. She gives a signal, and they both run at the structure and crash into it. As boxes fall around them, the adults who are watching laugh and applaud. Moments later, their little sister runs among the boxes, shouting with excitement.

In this video you see several advantages for children in working with what are often called “loose parts.” Loose parts such as cardboard boxes, pieces of fabric, and other items such as blocks, sand, and clay also are called “flexible play materials” because children can use them in a variety of ways. As long as an adult is supervising, these items are safe. When children play with loose parts, they benefit from the opportunity to envision and create large, elaborate items with or without adult help. They can imagine interesting possibilities and carry out emergent plans using the flexible materials. They can choose to communicate their ideas to others during the creative processes as well as during “destructive” processes such as crashing safely into a structure than can easily be reconstructed. For families, flexible play materials have the advantage of usually being inexpensive compared with many other toys. They can be especially appropriate for mixed-age groups of children. Children can use them in ways that suit their interests and abilities.



For about 30 seconds, Isaac moves and stacks boxes, sometimes talking to himself. Family members talk to each other off-camera.

Dad: Okay. I’ll help you get the top.

Isaac: (stacks a box and steps back) Whoa!

He looks at the structure and walks partway around it.

Isaac: Yeeow!

Dad picks up a box.

Dad: How high, how high can you go?

Isaac: The highest! Put that, put this the highest!

He hands a box to his father. He picks up another box and carries it to the structure.

Dad: Okay, need a little one for the top.

Isaac picks up two medium-sized boxes and places them on the structure. His father positions another box on the structure.

Isaac: Not that one!

Dad: All right. How about that little one?

Isaac runs to get the box his father has indicated.

Isaac: Yeah!

He returns with the small box.

Dad: And put it way up there?

Isaac: Yes! (He hands small box to his father.) Put it the highest!

Dad places the box as Isaac has requested.

Isaac: Yeeesss!!

Isaac’s older sister, Ellie, approaches the structure.

Dad: All right, what should you do with it now that it’s all the way up?

Ellie: (quietly, to Isaac) Knock it down.

Dad: Hunh?

Isaac: Knock that—

Ellie: One, two—

Isaac and Ellie shriek and run at the box structure, knocking it over. Family members who have been watching laugh and applaud.

Hannah: (running between fallen boxes) Yaaaaah!

Isaac: Yeah!

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Home
  • Family Child Care

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2017