“Oh, good, the box!” exclaimed Anna, Ryan, Carson, and Melanie.
This box has become a castle, a fire engine, a puppet theatre, a pirate ship, a bus, a house, a spaceship, and more. Once that box wore out, I’d head for Sears appliance store to solicit another box.
So, what’s so great about a box?
The box gave permission to the children (aged 4-8) to pretend. No direction was given, not even suggestions. The children themselves initiated with “let’s make a boat” or “let’s make a castle.” Occasionally they would ask for “props” like a bowl or supplies like a piece of fabric or magic markers. Sometimes I provided some costumes (mostly props like a toy sword, a king’s crown, a cowboy hat, or a fireman’s hat).
Obviously the box is a mere sample of imaginary play. The same could be said of a sandbox, a set of Legos, a set of magnets, an assortment of craft materials, a doll’s house, or other free-play resources. The point is that this kind of play meets the criterion of “behavior without dreading its consequences (Csikszentmihalyi 1981).” Nobody is directing or judging the child.
I call this “purposeful play” not because the child has a purpose for his imaginary play but because we parents and educators know that this kind of play serves an important purpose, in fact, several important purposes. Allowing time for children to play without direction or interruption (except for a few safety limits) has several short and long-term positive consequences. These “box children” have a significant advantage over the “non-box children.” The consequences reach far into the future (through elementary, high school, and beyond).
These children are in motion as they stretch, lift, and balance, developing flexibility and strength. Fine motor skills are refined as they draw, cut, trace, and paint. To “get out their bubbles” they run around occasionally, often still within their imaginary play, like running from the hunters, hiding in the woods, or dancing in the court. Watching these active children, we often remark, “I wish I had their energy!” This energy-output is needful for the present but also for long-term body health and stress relief. Stored energy can result in anxiety. Sometimes nail biting, hair pulling, “tense tummy” and test anxiety, all of which can be resolved by more physical play.
Think of the traits of kindness, patience, determination, and self-control. Parents teach these character traits, but children practice them during their imaginary play even if they are playing alone. For example, watch children empathize with both real and pretend friends as they practice putting themselves in the other’s shoes.
One reason that parents/educators limit the child’s imaginary play is to insure that the child “builds academic skills” and “doesn’t get behind.” Therefore, it’s common for parents to begin teaching letters, numbers, and fact memorization during the primary years. This, in moderation, is fine, but the cognitive skills most needed at this age are found in purposeful play. Those more academic skills can wait until later.
I teach high schoolers and observe those who have been “box children” and those who have not. A trend in education these days is to learn the “facts” early – memorizing, reciting the alphabet and phonics, and completing worksheets. Both can recite facts, but the “box children” usually have higher intellectual competence. They are more proficient in problem solving, making associations, inquiring, using appropriate vocabulary, and expressing themselves both orally and in writing. Their verbal skills are far superior. Long before children are ready to write formal stories, they are creating stories through dress-up, puppets, dolls, and boxes.
Enjoyment of learning
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the “box children” enjoy learning. This is so important to foster in the younger years. I’ve worked with fourth-graders who “hated school” and didn’t want to learn. Somebody put the brakes on these young children’s natural bent to explore, to inquire, to design, to problem-solve, and to have fun in the process. In contrast, the “box children” are noted for “active learning” rather than just going through the motions of completing assignments. They have an increased attention span and rely less on direction from teachers or just “getting the right answer.” They invest themselves in learning, engrossed in assignments.
Life is not merely play. I call the above purposeful play. There’s another kind of play – procrastinating play, which is avoidance of obedient action. “Stop playing with your food, and just finish your dinner” or “Stop playing with the broom, and finish sweeping the floor.” A wise parent differentiates the limits for the child. For example, “After you’re finished eating, you can go out and play” or “After you sweep the floor, you can play with the broom.” Then the child is ready for his purposeful play.
So, after you eat and do your chores, go play!
Director, English teacher
B.A. biology, M.S. counseling from Syracuse University, is 16-year home-schooling mom, teacher, counselor, co-author of the KONOS CURRICULUM and author of writing curriculum. She founded the KONOS ACADEMY OF PRAGUE, an international Christian worldview secondary school. She currently directs KONOS ACADEMY (KONOS KIDS, KONOS JUNIORS, KONOS ACADEMY), teaches at the academy, and counsels parents.