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Observation: Box Play

Box play is so beautifully simple and there is so much rich physical activity involved. These observations from a Newcastle Nursery Teacher creates interesting questions about the nature of girls and boys play and the possible knock-on effect of involvement in highly physical activity. Are they familiar to you? We’d love to hear what you think.

Nursery Teacher, Children’s Centre, Newcastle upon Tyne


Our caretaker gave us a large cardboard box. We put it in the back room along with some pieces of cloth and took in a group of ten children - three girls and seven boys – and observed what happened. 

Initially there was a lot of running up and down the room. Children started climbing in the box – both boys and girls. Aaron curled up at the bottom, pushing the sides with his back, arms and feet. Some children liked to climb in and out, others liked to stay inside. Logan observed for a while and then eventually climbed in. The children were happy to squash as many people inside as possible. As the play became more boisterous and noisy, the boys dominated and the girls were side lined. The box was tipped onto its side and boys tried to get in again, but that meant sitting on top of each other. There was lots of rough and tumble play. Some of the boys were superheroes, Liam was a water monkey. 

Children were reminded not to hurt each other. This was the only adult intervention.

The girls watched and enjoyed the excitement but continued to stand back. Hanna and Ellie discovered a length of material and stretched it out, pulling it around the room. Meanwhile the box was breaking up and the boys tried to create a tent shape. Then they started to use the fabric. Connor grabbed hold of it and enjoyed being pulled along on his tummy, by Hanna and Shayne, on the slippy cardboard. More children jumped on and the girls pulled them. Another group of children did the same. Chaos reigned and the noise level was high, full of shrieks, squeals and laughter. They hid under the fabric and enjoyed exploring the textures as well as the sensations of movement. 

After forty-five minutes of excitement they all collapsed with exhaustion amid the material. Some were wrapped up, others rested on the top, sleepy. All were quiet and still. 

Practitioner reflection 

In spite of the high level of excitement and boisterous behaviour there had only been one minor accident. The girls were very much side-lined but chose to stay in the room. Would a girls-only group have done the same thing? 

What learning was going on and what bearing had this on the following activities? Circle time followed. Connor, who is often lively and likes to sit in a certain place on the carpet, sat elsewhere and wasn’t bothered. He listened well, did not disturb others and was very engaged. Was this because of the physical activity that had taken place beforehand?


We repeated the activity with a different group of children; four boys including David. He is a quiet, able boy who likes to play physical games. He likes to run up and down, curl and stretch on the settee, throw himself on the floor when writing or eating dinner and ride fast on bikes - but he refuses to take part in new activities. 

The play was very energetic, with lots of running, climbing, hiding, and sliding. David tried to crush the boxes with his feet, while other children played a different game. Lots of pulling took place: children were pulled on collapsed boxes, or on material. Finally the children wrapped themselves in the material and lay down. David covered himself with the broken box and lay still too. 

Most children were subdued at the end of the session. Circle time with David was the same as usual. He lacks confidence when put on the spot. 

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