Check out Engineering Explorers, our newest online resource!

Toys That Encourage Problem-Solving

by Early Math Counts

We have old friends who taught us a lot about parenting.  When their children were really little (3 and under) they would go into their bedrooms, the basement,or  the playroom, and find toys that they never played with or forgot about and rewrapped them so they had something to open on their birthdays or holidays.  Their reasoning was that their children were far more interested in the boxes that the presents came in than the presents themselves.  They also liked the colorful paper and ribbons, but it was really all about the boxes.

I imagine that some of you have had this same experience.  Not only do young children love boxes, they love laundry baskets, Tupperware, kitchen spoons and spatulas, a roll of toilet paper, and the Sunday paper.  You might go out and spend a whole lot of money on a set of Duplos, but when it comes right down to it, your child (ren) may be just as interested in building a pile of spoons from the kitchen drawer as they are in building a pile of Duplos.

Children are natural-born problem solvers.  Boxes present so many challenges for the young child.  Can I climb into it?  Can I stand on top of it?  Can I crawl through it?  Can somebody find me if I hide in it?  What happens when I push it down the stairs?  What happens when I put my stuffed animal into it and then push it down the stairs?  These questions and so many others come with a large empty box.  These are not questions that adults have put forth.  They are questions that arise organically from the child’s open-ended play.  There are no directions that come with the box, and nobody is asking the child to do something or make something out of it.  There is no “right” way to play with a box.  It just is.Spoons

Open-ended, found materials encourage problem solving.  That is not to say that store-bought toys do not; they do of course.  However, there is so much opportunity for discovery in the mundane.  How many hours did my oldest child spend in front of the Tupperware cabinet? He pulled them out, stuffed them back in, matched the lids with the bottoms, used the tops as frisbees, stacked them tall and knocked them over.  All of this occurred without any direction from an adult.  He solved his own problems by manipulating and playing with these materials for hours on end.  If he couldn’t find a lid, he put that piece into a bigger container one and closed it inside with a bigger lid. He figured out which ones made the most noise when banging on it with a wooden spoon.  He discovered that he could put them at various distances across the kitchen floor and jump from one to another, like stepping-stones. He played pretend, he played with space and shape, he played with number, and he played with gusto.

Next time you hear a rumor that someone you know is having a refrigerator or washing machine delivered, do everything you can to get that box that it came it.  Your children will uncover all sorts of problems with it and then they will work very, very hard to solve them.


27 Replies to “Toys That Encourage Problem-Solving”

  1. Best memories ever …….my kids and big appliance boxes!! Rocket ships and trains and cars and while towns!! Great post

  2. Especially in the winter, I love gifting an empty box and the book, \”Not A Box\” to our tiny person\’s buddies 🙂 endless fun!

    1. I just looked up this book So great! What a wonderful idea to support this kind of open-ended exploration. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Great article. You can literally make a whole town with boxes. My brother-in-law used to pull out every pot and/or pan in his mom\’s cabinet under the sink and beat on them with a spoon when he was a toddler. She didn\’t stop him, instead she made the cabinet safe for him so he could continue. Today he travels all over the world playing the drums. He even had a job as the drummer for the Jay Leno show when it was on. I agree; best times ever!

  4. It it great to see what kids are able to think and create when given just a cardboard box! I love this because its so open ended and the possibilities are endless

  5. I love having many different open-ended items in my classroom, letting the children problem solve, by creating things with assorted items and recycled materials is one of the best activities I have in the classroom, also one that is the most popular during our center time, so use all those recycled items as open-ended products!!!!

  6. What a great book and idea to go along with it. I love open ended materials where children can create and explore and decide what it will be. I use open ended questions to encourage the exploration, and often pose questions t get them thinking on how to solve a problem or what the next step may need to be.

  7. Some of my favorite memories include playing in the tupperware cabinet. stacking, knocking down, and lining them up and matching lids was my favorite thing to do.

  8. I love using found objects in my classroom. The children love boxes, cardboard pieces, bubble wrap, paper towel tubes and lots of masking tape!! Love hearing the rich language that goes along with trying to figure out what to do with all the materials.

  9. I also love the idea of open-ended play. I remember when I was a toddler fascinated with cardboard boxes. I loved playing in them and making houses out of them. Thanks for sharing!

  10. This is an activity that my class enjoy. I turn big boxes into a zoo with stuff animals. some children enjoy counting how many animals while some children compare the size of the animal.

  11. We would use boxes with our own children all the time. The really large ones where they could play, even stand inside them, they would color with markers. They LOVED it. I used boxes, pots, pans, tupperware, you name it, with my own children, and continue to do so with my Daycare children. Some fun/problem solving never gets old!

  12. We know that most children like to explore as little investigators.
    They are curious and seek out efforts to problem solve.
    I look for and encourage persistence in children while they are attempting to solve problems during play, interactions with one another or work alone.
    It is just as important to problem solving as numbers are in math.

  13. It is simply amazing to watch childrens actions with large boxes, they love them an activity could last for 20 minutes

  14. I love watching my class figuring out what to do with the found items in our room(boxes, lids, spoons, newspapers, bags. . . ) All kinds of language and problem solving.

  15. I love the idea of the children using their imaginations to play instead of fancy toys. It’s a more organic way of playing and encourages problem solving.

  16. I can remember hours of play with a refrigerator box my Dad let us take outside. One of my best memories ever – and the whole neighborhood could fit inside! I also remember my sister and I drawing steering wheels on the large boxes our dolls came in at Christmas. We sat in our pretend cars and moved all through the house while the dolls lay forgotten on the bed.

  17. Boxes are surely one of the most entertaining items for children to play with. They can play and learn so many problem solving concepts from playing with boxes. In addition, they can use their imagination while learning to solve problems.

  18. I once collected various sizes and colors of lids. The students using them as nesting toys, counters, built with them, etc. It was a popular “toy” in the classroom.

  19. It has been said for all to hear!
    Children love “real” better than toys!
    Canned good are a great time to be had also!
    Give them a roll. Or stack a few. Sort them by…
    Maybe even count them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *