Three Neighborhood Boys and Their Boxes (Better Learning For Schools #8)

I have no doubt that many a parent has been intrigued by what I call the box phenomenon. You know what I mean–it’s when we fret about getting THE MOST educational toys and activities in front our kids—the ones that will turn them into successful, and hopefully rich geniuses someday. So, as a parent…we search, we research, we invest time and money into it.  It finally shows up on our front door—courtesy of UPS—and we are just certain that our kids will love it…and that he or she will end up being brilliant because of it. But inevitably, what transpires is the box phenomenon.

As an example, take this really cool—or what I thought was a really cool toy—that my wife and I gave to one of our kids.  It was one of those versatile building kits comprised of oddly geometrically shaped, 3D puzzle pieces that can be assembled in different ways to make anything from a dinosaur to an airplane or anything else that a kid might come up with.

And for the first ten minutes, my kid played with it like crazy.  He was happy, he seemed to be interacting with this great toy, and I felt like a great parent.  So I left him alone for a while, and walked off giving myself an invisible, but well-deserved pat on the back.

But when I came back 10 minutes later, the 3D puzzle pieces were pushed to the side.  And instead, he was folding, cutting, and drawing on the box and packing materials that this great toy had come in.  I wanted to stomp and scream, but instead…I composed myself and asked as politely as I could.  “Son, what are you doing?”

He glanced up and me, smiling.  His answer was brief and simple.  “Dad, thanks for the really cool box.” Then he went back to ‘work,’ folding, cutting, and drawing.

That’s the box phenomenon.  It’s when kids, like mine, like yours, and like the ones we teach in school would rather play with the box than anything and everything that we try to get them to do. And why is that?

To me boxes embody the sort of informal learning that we often overlook and undervalue in schools.  It is the kind of self-directed exploration that takes place beyond the confines of classrooms.  Playing with a box, building forts out of couch cushions, enormous construction projects in sandboxes, and the mixing of mud-pies.  You could make the case kids learn…as long as we stay out of the way.   One thing is apparent, though.  Kids are learning at all the time—not just when we tell them to.

I have been fascinated by the number of informal learning institutions that are springing up all over. Think of your own city, for example, and count the number of kids museums, nature and science centers, cultural centers, and other out-of-school learning places that are successfully marketing an opportunity for your child to be engaged and informed through seemingly informal interaction with interesting artifacts, exhibits, workstations, costumes, props, and people.  Informal learning has become big business.

The Association of Children’s Museums, for example, claims that their environments allow children to learn at their own pace through playful, exploratory, and interactive experiences.  My thought was, as a parent and educator, shouldn’t I be seeking to do the same—you know, trying to blur the boundaries that we so often place between the types of learning that go on in school versus the informal exploration that takes place in other places.

In a recent commentary in Scientific America, Dennis Bartels said it this way…

Informal learning environments tolerate failure better than schools. Perhaps many teachers have too little time to allow students to form and pursue their own questions and too much ground to cover in the curriculum and for standardized tests. But people must acquire these skills somewhere. Our society depends on them being able to make critical decisions, about their own medical treatment, say, or what we must do about global energy needs and demands. For that, we have a robust informal learning system that eschews grades, takes all comers, and is available even on holidays and weekends.
So, maybe instead of investing in toys, I should be rounding up boxes for kids…and for my students to play with.  After all, boxes are incredible tools (and models) for learning.  They are pliable, changeable, and open-to exploration.  A box can be anything a kid wants it to be.  Perhaps instead of trying to think outside of the box, you and I should spend time watching kids play with them…and maybe even play with a box our two our self.


Bartels, D. M. (2013). What Is Your Question?. Scientific American308(3), 12.

Curtis Chandler can be contacted at:
Twitter @curtischandler6
Blog:  Better Learning For Schools

Leave a Reply