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Simple Ways to Play and Learn with Your Child: Boxes

Lab News

The following activity is part of a series of fun and easy ways to build your child’s brain power by using one simple toy (or an object that you already have at home). Making the most out of everyday moments with what you already have on hand may be easier than you think!

Fun and Learning with Boxes

Looking for the best toy to help your child be a creative thinker? The best toy doesn’t need batteries nor does it come in a box—it is the box!

Two cardboard boxes — one big and one small — along with a few small toys (rattles, blocks, cars, etc.) are all that is needed to provide rich and meaningful playtime for babies and little kids alike. Ideally, the big box should be big enough for a child to sit inside or crawl through and the small box could hold one or two small toys.

Click on your child’s age and stage below to see how to use this simple toy to help them practice and learn new skills. Need something easier or more challenging? Then try again using the prompts for a different age and stage.

 
Blocks activities

Infants

(birth–9 months)
 
1

Explore what interests your child:

Show your infant a favorite rattle or toy. Place it in a box and shake the box. Then let the baby try putting the toy into the box and taking it out. Delight in finding the toy each time the lid opens.

2

Love and guide:

As you play with the box, mirror your baby’s expressions. This helps to show them you understand their cues.

3

Go back and forth:

“Broadcast” what your child is doing with the box. For example: “You are banging on the box. Now you are peeking in the box, etc.” Talking about what is happening builds babies’ interest and curiosity.

4

Read, sing, and tell stories:

Help your baby “read” the world. If there are images on the box, point to what you see and name it. Noticing pictures or things in the environment is the first step in reading!

 
 
 
 
Blocks activities

Crawlers & Walkers

(10–17 months)
 
1

Explore what interests your child:

Play jack-in-the-box. If your baby gets into the box, say: “(Name) is in the box!” If they jump out, say: “(Name) is out of the box!” This helps your child learn that you exist even when you can’t be seen – a major intellectual milestone!

2

Love and guide:

Name your child’s emotions. For example: “You look surprised!”, “That was a silly one!”, “ Were you a little worried that time? That’s ok. We can stop if you’d like.” Letting your child know that you understand their feelings helps build their sense of trust and security.

3

Go back and forth:

Talk about what the child is doing as they go in and out of the box. Add other details about how they are playing. For example: “This time you stayed inside for a longer time (or really short time)!” Adding more details helps their language and understanding grow.

4

Read, sing, and tell stories:

Make up a song by singing the Baby Shark tune: “(Child’s name) in the box do, do, do , do, do, do. (Child’s name) in the box, do, do, do , do, do, do. (Child’s name) in the box do, do, do , do, do, do – I see you!” Repetition and rhyme are important for expanding language skills. Singing is a powerful way to help babies remember new words.

 
Blocks activities

Toddlers

(18–30 months)
 
1

Explore what interests your child:

Encourage your child to pretend the box is a different space such as a garage or bedroom, and use other pretend objects that go with that space. A block could be a car in a garage, or a pillow in a room. Pretend play builds imagination and critical thinking.

2

Love and guide:

Talk with your child about who lives or works at the pretend box place. Encourage your child to imitate the actions and behaviors of the people at each place. Children learn about life from observing and hearing how others are viewed by you.

3

Go back and forth:

Acknowledge what your toddler says as they are pretending the box is a different space and add more to it. Example: “This car needs air in its tires!” Expanding in this way helps toddlers remember their idea and deepen the concept.

4

Read, sing, and tell stories:

Create a song about the box using a familiar tune. For example: “If you’re happy and you know it, build a garage…If your car is stopped, let’s get some gas…etc.” Hearing words put to music helps children understand patterns of speech, which is a critical pre-literacy skill.

 
 
 
 
Blocks activities

Preschoolers

(2.5–5 years)
 
1

Explore what interests your child:

Give your child both boxes and see the creative ideas they may have for the boxes. You may see them create an adventure inside the big box, or use the box to create a place for their toys. Your child may also have ideas for how to use both sizes together! Watch and make comments as the play unfolds.

2

Love and guide:

Encourage collaboration and cooperative play between children. One child can decorate inside the box, the other on the outside – or perhaps they have an idea for how to decorate both together. Children want to be cooperative but often need some ideas from you to get them started.

3

Go back and forth:

Follow your child’s lead. As they come up with ideas, make comments that help prompt them to tell you more about their box place. If it’s a spaceship, ask “I wonder — how do the controls work?” Using questions that can’t be answered with a yes or no helps your child use language and connect thoughts more fully.

4

Read, sing, and tell stories:

Tell a silly story about the pretend box space. Start with ”This is NOT a box, it’s a _____ (bathtub, car, etc.)!” Ask your child for details that could be added to the story.

To learn more, check out the Early Learning Lab’s four simple strategies that parents and caregivers can use to support young children and make the most out of everyday moments.