Antoinette Portis's 2006 children's book Not a Box comes wrapped in brown paper. It resembles a cardboard box in flattened form, its bold Impact font in the style of the classic post office rubber stamp: all red, all caps. On the back cover there's a more explicit nod to shipping: "This End Up." But the story it tells is more complex. "Why are you sitting in a box?" asks a voice offstage. "It's not a box," replies our hero, a rabbit drawn with three rough black lines. In the pages that follow, we see the rectangle of the box, drawn in black, morph into a racecar, a mountain, a howdah, a rocket, via red lines, seemingly drawn in haste, that are literally outside the box. In answer to repeated questions from the same offstage voice, the rabbit doesn't bother to explain. She just repeats, "It's not a box." What the box is, is whatever she imagines it to be. The voice's humdrum questions are slowing her down, boxing in her creativity. She is ready to take off while adult specificity would keep her grounded.
Portis's book, in design and content, reminds us that many of our longest-serving toys have no baked-in narrative. Simple shapes and sturdy materials encourage free play and meet the child at her level. She may get in the box, color the box, cut the box, stack her box with a friend's. The box is merely a vehicle for building structures — real or imaginary — of increasing complexity. The box, like its cousin the block, has been central to early childhood education since the late seventeenth century, when John Locke, in his influential epistolary book Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), wrote of a father who replaced educating his children by repetition and force with educating them by using a game played with four wooden blocks pasted with all the letters of the alphabet, one block for vowels, the other three for consonants. The father, wrote Locke, "has made this a play for his children, that he shall win, who, at one cast, throws most words on these four dice; whereby his eldest son, yet in coats, has played himself into spelling with great eagerness, and without once having been chid for it, or forced to it."
Today's toy aisles reflect the pedagogical ideas of Locke and the educators who followed him in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, notably Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Friedrich Froebel, who believed that children had to touch and observe for themselves in order to learn. With the latter half of the twentieth century came child psychologist Jean Piaget's "constructivist" theory of cognitive development, which dominates present-day early childhood education: Young children learn through experiences, constructing information for themselves by manipulating physical objects, with teachers as guides rather than sources of information. In Raising America, her history of "a century of advice about children," Ann Hulbert describes the Piagetian child as "an independent experimenter investigating a world of objects, solving the epistemological problems of space, time, causality, and categorizing." The offstage voice questioning what the rabbit is doing needs to wait or, in what educators would call "scaffolding," ask questions that draw the rabbit out. Not Why are you sitting on that box? but What is that box today? What happens to your stuffed rabbit if you put it inside that box? What do you think would happen if you piled up two boxes? Let's see if you are right. The child learns through her senses as she puts the box through its paces and as she reencounters the box in different settings and with different groups of children. Bookseller materials prepared for the launch of Not a Box suggested bookstores hold their own "Bring Your Own Box" events, inviting children to bring a cardboard box and providing "scissors, markers, crayons (especially red), construction paper, glue sticks, and any other arts-and-crafts supplies you have." (Thematic snacks include juice boxes and animal cracker boxes.)
Play with boxes hasn't always been so regimented and supervised. When I was a child, the purchase of a new washing machine was a cause for celebration in my neighborhood, as it meant access to a new playhouse in somebody's yard. This was an experience we shared with decades upon decades of children before us. Corrugated cardboard boxes were first introduced in the late 1870s and slowly replaced wooden crates as the preferred wrapper for objects of all sizes, from crackers to kitchen appliances. As the objects contained grew larger — by 1940, 44 percent of American homes had a mechanical refrigerator, up from 8 percent in 19305 — the play potential of those boxes increased. A shoebox was fine for a diorama, but everyone wanted something you could get inside.
Dr. Benjamin Spock once touted the cardboard box as an inexpensive alternative for parents who couldn't afford store-bought playthings like toy cars or a ready-made jungle gym. Better to give your child "a packing box. By turns it's a bed, a house, a truck, a tank, a fort, a doll's house, a garage," he wrote. But that didn't mean its commercial potential went unnoticed. In 1951, Charles and Ray Eames — married collaborators who practiced in Los Angeles and designed their own Pacific Palisades house like a grown-up Erector Set — assembled a neighborhood they called Carton City out of the cardboard boxes used to ship their company's iconic parti-colored Eames Storage Units. They designed surface graphics for the boxes suggesting where doors, windows, and awnings might be cut through the corrugations. The same year, the Eameses created The Toy, manufactured by Tigrett Enterprises, which offered children the chance to make their own prefabricated structures, more colorful and lightweight than Carton City. The Toy (even the name suggested that it might be the only toy a child needs) combined thin wooden dowels, pipe cleaners, and a set of square and triangular stiffened-paper panels in green, yellow, blue, red, magenta, and black. Children could run the dowels through sleeves on the edges of the panels to strengthen them and then attach these struts at the corners. The Toy took the cardboard box beyond the right angle, allowing for the creation of gem-like haunts or twisting towers. In September 1951, Interiors also wrote up The Toy, presenting its simple assembly and graphic design as "a happy change from the intricate, puzzling, super-mechanical constructor set which has been the standard building toy since little Gilbert wore knickers." Creative Playthings, a New York City–based store that sold modern and educational toys, put a fiberboard playhouse in their catalog as early as 1967, with a pitched roof and scored windows and doors. That catalog also included a list of Piaget's four stages of childhood development — helpfully illustrated with Creative Playthings products. But although the cardboard box has been marketed, it can scarcely be improved. So potent is the form that the cardboard box was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2005.10 Other constructive entries in the Hall of Fame include alphabet blocks, the Erector Set, Lincoln Logs, LEGO bricks, and the Tinkertoy.
That we need a book like Portis's at all to remind us that even an ordinary box can spur the imagination is a commentary on how far toys have come since Locke's day. As a number of writers have argued, children's toys and children's play are a space dominated by intense commercial energy and an ever-increasing explicitness of purpose. But the toys in the Hall of Fame represent another trend that runs like a counterpoint through much of this hungry selling. From the beginning of the mass-produced toy industry, designers, manufacturers, artists, and educators have made toys intended to teach. In the postwar period, these were ennobled as "Good Toys," a catchall term for playthings that encouraged creativity, stimulated the mind, promoted active play, and eschewed violence. Such toys were produced internationally and exhibited a similar simplicity of form, truth to materials, and absence of decoration. They were the cardboard box commodified, with copy on their packaging touting creativity, quiet, and hours of solo play. They were rarely advertised on TV but were often on display as symbols in model homes and dream houses —"Good Toy" equals good parenting.
If there is a Good Toy (educational, useful, unadorned), there must also be a Bad Toy (flimsy, decorated, a symbol of conspicuous consumption). The definition of good, though, is a moving target, keeping time with educational theory. Circa 1800, maps, puzzles, and games taught geography and etiquette; circa 1850, scientific instruments and construction sets often required the intervention of an adult; circa 1900, educators stressed simplicity: wooden beads, wooden blocks. Toys reveal the attitudes of adult society. It is parents and educators who read the leaflets included in building sets claiming they will turn a child into an engineer, an architect, or, nowadays, a computer programmer.
Historians trace the opposition between Good Toy and Bad Toy back to the dawn of the marketing of toys in the late eighteenth century. As tastemakers pushed for increased "parental interference" in children's lives, encouraging everything from breast-feeding to setting aside space for a nursery in the home, the sales of children's goods — including blocks, didactic games, and picture books — followed suit. In Practical Education (1798), educator Maria Edgeworth describes the need for a "rational toyshop," selling "balls, pulleys, wheels, strings, and strong little carts" as well as "pieces of wood of various shapes and sizes, which they may build up and pull down."
Industrial woodworking and printing businesses were the first makers of building toys for the middle class, both in Europe and America. Some early block sets, following Locke, used the six sides as an opportunity to display symbols: letters, numbers, or stories, often taken from the Bible. Designer and historian Karen Hewitt describes these early commercial products as "dipped in honey," sweetening learning by treating the toy like an advertisement for itself, with multicolor imagery made possible by chromolithography, a then new printing technology. To focus the child's mind on letters, it would be better if alphabet blocks weren't all colors of the rainbow, or if the colors corresponded to a next step in reading, like differentiating vowels from consonants. In recognition of this, twentieth-century Montessori alphabet sets use blue for vowels and red for consonants. Like other Montessori materials, the blocks are supposed to be "auto-educative" so that children can teach themselves with minimal adult interruption. The lesson is baked into the design. Some nineteenth-century block sets were made up of abstract geometric shapes, for pure building. Still others were building-specific, often linking the child's play to the history of architecture in his or her country. The most popular building sets, produced well into the twentieth century, shared the literalness of the alphabet and biblical toys. As Brenda and Robert Vale write in their history of construction toys, Architecture on the Carpet, "in America Lincoln Logs perpetuated the legend of the frontier and Wild West in its many versions of miniature log cabins, and in Britain black-and-white Tudor Minibrix were sold with a grainy photograph of seventeenth-century houses in the village of Weobley in Herefordshire, so redolent of 'olde England.'"
In the twentieth century, as middle-class mothers became primary caregivers without household help, they absorbed the message that they should be playing with their children themselves, rather than parking them in front of solitary distractions. But what to do when you have housework? The Good Toy is the solution. Starting in the 1920s, Parents magazine ran a column titled "Toys That Teach." Playskool, which sold desks and blackboards for use at home, used the slogan "Learning while playing" in the 1920s, and "Toys that build kids" in the 1960s. Media studies professor Ellen Seiter writes, "Supplying a toy just so a mother could win time to herself did not jibe with the increasing emphasis on a mother's constant monitoring and stimulation of her child. But the emphasis on toys and learning, the idea that toys — as well as mothers — could also teach, solved this problem nicely." LEGO, having successfully associated itself with "creative play," used its advertisements to stress the bricks' use for quiet, nonviolent play: "Let somebody else's child get his kicks tracking a little kid through a gun sight" read an ad from 1966, describing the viewpoint of today's highly realistic first-person shooter games long before their creation. And the names for two of the game modes in Minecraft, Creative and Survival, echo the Good Toy/Bad Toy, thoughtful/violent split. While danger lurks in Survival mode, you don't have to fight or die in Creative, and you have unlimited resources, that is, an infinite number of blocks. The construction toy is simultaneously a blank slate and an object for the projecting of competing desires, whether it is made of cardboard, wood, plastic, or pixels. The imaginative play fostered by objects like The Toy happens side-by-side with the manipulation of block sets emblazoned with numerals, pictures, and Bible stories, and these two modes have been present since the origins of the toy industry in the late eighteenth century. This history undergirds the more specific case studies of building toys that follow, examples chosen to highlight both the influence and ubiquity of the form in classrooms and playrooms, as well as a few toys that, in a burst of adult creativity, twist away from geometry toward biology. The apparently unsatisfiable two-hundred-year quest for the ideal educating object, the elusive Good Toy, metaphorically links wooden cubes to the latest video games, and physically links 3-D-printed connectors to classic Tinkertoys.
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You are four. You sit at a low table, a companion on either side on a long bench, your feet just touching the ground. The wooden table before you is marked with a grid of thin lines, four inches apart, stretching to the edges. A teacher appears behind you with a wooden box. She places it on the table in front of you, slides back the bottom — you didn't even see the lid! — and lifts the box. In front of you is a wooden cube. You touch it and it comes apart. Oh no! But your teacher just smiles and leaves you to examine the parts. It is not one cube but eight. You begin to stack them into a tower. This is kindergarten.
The cardboard box is a vehicle for the imagination, a building block light enough for a child to lift, an illustration of the translation of dimensions into volume. The wooden block is what it is: solid, natural, untransformable. To Friedrich Froebel, the block was where to begin an education. When he set up the first kindergartens in the early nineteenth century, he gave children wooden blocks and would-be teachers a system that he believed would unfold the mysteries of nature and mathematics through the fingers and the senses. Blocks weren't something to be dumped out on the floor but tiny sculptures presented with ceremony. I've seen one of the original Froebel block sets made by Milton Bradley, their first American manufacturer. Almost cubic itself, the box of blocks has a pleasant heft and mystery. Slide back the top and you see another cube of cubes nestled inside. In this crystalline arrangement, children might discover the world.
Froebel, born in 1782, was a polymath, gifted in drawing and other forms of visual communication. As a teenager, he trained as a woodsman in Germany's Thuringian Forest, learning about botany and forestry and drying, mounting, and classifying his own sets of local flowers and leaves. At university in Jena, he listened to lectures on mathematics and science, and he imagined working as a cartographer, translating information into graphics. He looked for work as a surveyor, considered becoming an architect, and then decided to teach. In 1805, he accepted a position at the Frankfurt Model School.
It turned out to be a place where, via drawing, handwork, and the experience of nature, children were taught an organized version of the stitched-together education that produced Froebel himself. The school was run by a follower of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who trained educators from across Europe and the United States at a series of homelike model schools he founded between 1798 and 1825, inspired by the idea of childhood described in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile, or On Education (1762). Pestalozzi's groundbreaking decision was to eliminate the one-directional rote learning that had come to dominate organized schools. Positive reinforcement, capitalizing on children's innate curiosity, replaced a system of dictation and rigid codes for good behavior. Instead, children were given "object lessons," starting with observation of minerals, plants, and animals, learning to represent them on the page first as abstracted lines, angles, and curves and building up to more realistic representation. Educators supported students as they found their way to their own conclusions through manipulation and observation. In his novel Leonard and Gertrude (1781), Pestalozzi suggests that a mother might teach her children to count by numbering the steps from one side of the room to the other, and teach them the decimal system by observing the ten panes of glass in each window. The alphabet was taught via cutout letters that students could touch and manipulate, a tactile technique still present in Montessori education. Alongside these instructional objects and drawing exercises, Pestalozzi schools also encouraged singing (primarily of Protestant hymns), dancing, and experiencing the outdoors. Geography was taught on nature walks, botany and geology by collecting samples, mathematics with apples and stones. Older children might make relief maps of local terrain. Touch was to lead to thought, thought to learning.