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Early childhood education has been my life for over 30 years. I have taught all age groups from infants to 5-year-olds. I was a director for five years in the 1980s, but I returned to the classroom 22 years ago. My passion is watching the ways children explore and discover their world. In the classroom, everything starts with the reciprocal relationships between adults and children and between the children themselves. With that in mind, I plan and set up activities. But that is just the beginning. What actually happens is a flow that includes my efforts to invite, respond and support children's interface with those activities and with others in the room. Oh yeh, and along the way, the children change the activities to suit their own inventiveness and creativity. Now the processes become reciprocal with the children doing the inviting, responding and supporting. Young children are the best learners and teachers. I am truly fortunate to be a part of their journey.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Box tower potentialities

Any person who has ever seen children playing with boxes knows that boxes provide endless play potential for children.  In fact, it is one of the toys that has been inducted into The Strong National Museum of Play Toy Hall of Fame.  In their blurb about the cardboard box, they write: Over the years, children sensed the possibilities inherent in cardboard boxes, recycling them into innumerable playthings.  This was the first non-manufactured toy to be inducted and currently stands alone in that category with the stick.  I do hope to see the rock there soon.

What happens to the play potential of the box when I, as an adult, build an apparatus from a box or boxes?  Since children are not manipulating the box, do I restrict the play opportunities?  Or by building a structure, do I open up new possibility for play and exploration?

Here is an example of an apparatus built with boxes.  It is simply called a box tower because it is built up vertically.  In this case, the structure is comprised of three boxes stacked on top of one another and duct taped together.  The whole installation is then taped securely to the bottom of the table with duct tape so the children cannot move it.  In the picture below, I put sand in the table and little dinosaurs all around.

With the boxes stacked in a box tower, what new affordances are there for the children to discover as they work with the dinosaurs and the boxes.  First there are the holes.  In the video below, the children are dropping the dinosaurs into the holes.  The child in the circle dress drops hers through a middle hole while the child in the orange on the other side of the table drops her dinosaur through the top hole.

Dinosaur drop from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I greatly appreciate the sound effects the children make.  Its as if they are imagining the sound the dinosaurs would make if they fell into a hole in a mountain.  So that is how dinosaurs went extinct!

In the picture below, the child is feeding the horses.  In this instance, the hole becomes the door between the stable and outside.

The boxes stacked in a tower create ledges and levels for the children to use in their operations. The child in the picture below is using the a ledge to hold the bowl on a level above the table to see how high she can stack the horse's food.
What happens when there are no animals? Without the dinosaurs or farm animals to animate, what is left for the children to do?  With scoops and containers they drop the sand into the holes cut in the box towers.  It is no longer a mountain or a stable, but the children use it as a machine to make stuff.  They feed the machine through the holes with their raw materials.

I was so fascinated by what the children came up with, I decided one day to record what they were making.  I hung a big sheet of paper on the wall next to the sensory table and wrote what the children said they were making.  Below is an example of what I recorded.  Remember, they are saying a different ingredient each time they scoop or pour sand through one of the holes.
This was a literacy experience, not just because I wrote it down and read it back to the children, but also because one child wrote his name next to his recipe and taped it to the big sheet.

The box tower apparatus is usually strong enough that when I take it out of the sensory table, I put it in the block area as another invitation to play and explore. 

Again, the children will appropriate the holes for their own purposes.  It might well become a garage inside which a child parks the cars or herself.  The ledge offers a opportunity to create a multilevel garage with boards as ramps to go up and down.

And when I say they appropriate it for their own purposes, I mean they find innumerable uses for the box tower.  On the left, the child uses the ledge as a perch to survey what is going on in the block area.  With his hand through the windows, it looks like a comfortable perch.  The child on the right has decided to explore the box tower with her whole body.  It is almost like she is wearing it.

My original question was: Do I restrict the play potential or do I create new possibilities for play by building a structure like the box tower?  I think I have made a case for a type of play that would not have happened without the box tower.   Is the structure, even though it is tied down, an open-ended loose part that children use with other loose parts that are not tied down to author their own play?   The box tower can surely be categorized as a loose part when it is detached from the sensory table.  However, the structure is still my creation which is different than giving children the loose boxes to play with.  The question then becomes: How would the play be different---or the same---if the children were given the boxes not taped together to form a structure as loose parts to be used in the table? 

What do you thing?

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