That’s what Ohio preschool teacher Pete Kaser learned when he removed all the toys and learning tools from his classroom and replaced them with raw materials, such as boxes and egg cartons, NBC4 reports.
“The children were actually not asking for their toys back or where the toys were at all, which is kind of shocking,” Kaser, who teaches at Wellington in Columbus, told the Huffington Post.
Instead, the kids started exploring the materials and working together to build a variety of creations they dreamed up on their own. They’ve since created an igloo, a pirate ship, a rocket ship, a hotel and houses with makeshift kitchens. Subject matter from previous lessons even came into play when the children fashioned a didgeridoo out of a cardboard tube after learning about the wind instruments while studying Australia.
“I just spent so many years looking at all my teaching materials and thinking that so much of them have a preassigned value to them,” Kaser said. “I wasn’t getting the imagination out of the children that I wanted.”
A toy phone, for example, is going to look like a toy phone and function as a toy phone to most children, Kaser explained. The same goes for a cash register, or a train. But if you ask a child what he or she sees with a cardboard box, you might get 10 different answers and thus, more creativity, he argued.
Kaser said he plans to continue with the box experiment until the children no longer show interest, but so far, he said, the students are still engaged. In addition, several of the shyer children have come out of their shells and taken to leading some of the projects.
Still, the question remains whether these students are actually learning anything, but experts say the answer is a resounding “yes.”
“I think there are very general trends that lot of people in child development are thinking about, and concerned about, which is that there’s more and more pressure from parents and policy makers to make preschool more and more like upper level schools,” said Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley who studies child learning and development. “It’s ironic because at the same time this is happening, there is more and more research showing that things like exploration and pretend play really are very powerful learning mechanisms.”
According to Gopnik, pretend play helps to foster a child’s ability to imagine different possibilities, which is tied to engaging in counterfactual thinking: being able to consider alternatives that aren’t right there in front of you — an essential when it comes to skills, such as long-term planning.
“Imagining different things a [cardboard] box could be is really an important intellectual feat,” Gopnik told HuffPost. “It’s a good way to exercise that ability.”
Though she wouldn’t encourage teaching with cardboard boxes exclusively, Gopnik pointed to the experiment as a powerful reminder that fancy electronic learning toys aren’t necessarily better than minimalist ones.
Deborah Stipek, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Education, added that the children’s interpersonal and problem solving skills would benefit from working with the boxes.
“It’s an opportunity to collaborate and cooperate with each other and negotiate,” Stipek told HuffPost. “One kid will say, ‘Lets make it big’ and one will say, ‘Let’s make it this size.’ It will raise social problems that they’ll have to solve, and it’s good for kids to have to engage in social problem solving.”
Stipek said that kids should indeed sometimes struggle with their learning tools, despite the inclination of parents to protect them from getting discouraged.
“They’re going to have a plan, and a lot of their plans are not going to work out very well. They’re going to have to figure out another strategy, and they’re going to have to add that to their goals,” Stipek added. “I suspect that if you sat in there for 10 minutes, you’d see things falling down and not holding together. You’d see the rocket ship that doesn’t look like a rocket ship.”
On the other hand, Stipek said, cardboard boxes can only go so far and a curriculum that includes exposure to reading, math and science is also important.
“I don’t think the message is that preschool should just be cardboard boxes,” Stipek said. “My guess is that in the second week, things start petering out.”