The Fullness of an Empty Box

With the post-holiday doldrums in full effect, let’s reflect a moment on the biggest irony of the season: the near universal preference children have for the BOX over the GIFT. Our memory cards are full of grinning kids bursting out of empty boxes with bows stuck on their heads. Meanwhile we publicly post the staged photo of the grimacing child holding a gift: “Thank you (aunt/uncle) for the (molded plastic gizmo)!” So what is it about an empty box that is so appealing?


“With nothing more than a little imagination, boxes can be transformed into forts or houses, spaceships or submarines, castles or caves. Inside a big cardboard box, a child is transported to a world of his or her own, one where anything is possible.” National Toy Hall of Fame

It is well known in child development circles that open-ended activities and non-prescriptive objects provide the best type of play experiences. In other words, kids are more engaged when they make up their own games and construct their own toys. But does this affection for the empty box stay with kids as they age out of imaginative play?

box tali-buchler-indoor-playscape-cardboard-blocks-DIY1

Indeed, it does. And just as the kids get bigger and stronger and more complex, so should the box. Bigger kids are all about construction-  Duplos, Legos, tape, twine and sticks. And bigger is almost always better.  Take a look at Tali Buchler’s “enhanced” boxes that stack and slot together. Kids can easily, safely erect giant constructions that are equally delightful to tower up as to demolish apart.

box villiers-high-teen-playground

Even teenagers respond to an empty box. “Platforum” is a set of sixty precast concrete boxes designed by Clara Gaggero for a high school in West London. These simple, elegant forms are a testament to the power of non-prescriptive objects to pique the interest of all ages. The designer strategically clustered and stacked these life-sized boxes in locations that broke up the empty play yard into smaller gathering spots. Bold color was applied to select surfaces and grass was planted inside others. The results were dramatic: within weeks, the number of kids who opted to gather outside during lunch increased from an average of 40 to almost the entire population of 700 students.

box villiers-high-teen-playground1

“The less prescriptive the spaces, the more people will find a corner,” says Gaggero. “In this case, their way to play is socializing – they are in that stage where you hang around and talk, so they just needed a lot of spots to chat.” Starting with wee ones and imaginative play, through big kid constructions and into teenage social angst, empty boxes can offer a fullness of experience by allowing kids to fill them in however they choose.

One response to “The Fullness of an Empty Box

  1. Great article! I remember when we were kids and didn’t have much. The boys across the street had a Dad who worked at Sears and they got all the newest, “store-bought” stuff at Christmas while we got very little. My brother Bob was playing in a big box a TV had come in — not sure what he’d made out of it –and and one of the boys across the street was heard to say “That Bob — he sure gets the fun stuff”.

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