Learning and Development

What Children Can Learn From Everyday Objects

  • What Children Can Learn From Everyday Objects

We can nurture children’s development using inexpensive and readily available resources, say Russell Grigg and Helen Lewis…

Picture the scene. December 25th is fast approaching, and parents are rushing around trying to find the latest must-have toy for their young children. After much effort, anxiety and expense, they are relieved to carefully wrap the toy and place it under the tree. On Christmas morning the children open their boxes and, although pleased by their present initially, ultimately seem to spend far more time jumping in and out of the packaging and rolling around with the glittery screwed-up wrapping paper.

This isn’t an urban myth. Many of us have stood bemused on such occasions. And yet as educators we shouldn’t be surprised. Studies show that playing with objects such as discarded boxes can be highly motivating and aids children’s all-round development. Their imagination takes over. Large cardboard boxes are transformed into forts, castles, caves and cars. Smaller boxes become furniture for doll’s houses, or containers for precious things. As boxes come in all shapes and sizes, children learn about their properties, and can compare and contrast them. They can repeatedly drop things in and out of the box, which lays the foundation for learning about capacity, volume and space.

For teachers, activity leaders and early years practitioners alike, the humble cardboard box represents a treasure trove of learning opportunities to share with the young children. Early literacy skills can be extended by placing simple words in matchboxes and asking children to rearrange them to form a poem or sentence. Cereal boxes can be labelled with numbers or letters of the alphabet and children asked to fill them with the correct number of objects beginning with that letter. And what about planning a mini golf course out of cardboard boxes? This will help develop an understanding of the properties of materials as well as problem solving, creative thought and motor skill development.

Beyond the box

From the moment children enter the world they are surrounded by everyday objects. They soon begin to hold, suck, shake, pull and squeeze these things as a means of exploring their environment. Comforting objects offer children emotional security. As young children acquire language, they begin to ask questions about the many objects they see, hear, feel, taste and smell, both natural and built. And yet, as adults, we take many of these things for granted.

In our recent book, ‘Teaching on a Shoestring’, we explore the educational potential of using everyday objects such as apples, boxes, pegs and shoes. We believe passionately that skills such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity can be fostered from a very young age through the use of hands-on activity with simple, inexpensive and readily available resources, and by talking about these with other people.

Young children learn and remember more effectively when play involves multisensory opportunities – touching, smelling, hearing, tasting and seeing – and our activities reflect this. Although children are naturally inclined to want to touch objects first, they can also learn a lot by careful observation and conversation. It’s worth discussing with children why it may not be appropriate to handle an object – perhaps because it is too fragile, too precious or too dangerous. For instance, in museums, some objects are so valuable (e.g. due to their age, rarity or beauty) that they are not even exhibited. Learning to be careful, and to treat objects with respect, is an important skill to develop. So many of our activities allow children to learn by looking very closely at an object, by sketching it, relating it to their own experience or listening to associated stories.

We think it’s time to take a fresh look at everyday objects. In these tight economic times, practitioners, educational managers and leaders are ever mindful of ‘value for money’ principles when building up collections of resources. Put simply, this means spending less, spending well and spending wisely. Based on our travels around preschool settings and primary schools, we have seen some exceptional practitioners teaching on a shoestring. On the next gift day, perhaps a brave parent might wrap an empty cardboard box and see what happens… 

Teaching on a Shoestring (Crown House Publishing, £16.99), an A–Z of everyday objects to enthuse and engage children and extend learning in the early years, features hundreds of ideas and activities to stimulate developing minds.

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