Loose Parts Play & Cardboard Totem Boxes

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When I released the Totem Box pattern a few weeks ago,  I alluded to the fact that this was a design that I used to manage the “little” toys in our house, but the thought behind the design goes a little deeper.

Quite a few months ago, I made an online friend named Allie who writes the blog, Bakers and Astronauts (as well as Play Lab). Allie’s blog is hands down my favorite website about early childhood and inspired play, and it was Allie who first introduced me to the Theory of Loose Parts, which got me exploring with my own children.

“The Theory of Loose Parts Play” was proposed by Simon Nicholson back in the 1970’s. His theory is this: “In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”

When I started thinking about adapting Loose Parts Play inside my home, there were  a few things to rethink. First of all when Nicholson speaks about number and kind of variables, I think he ultimately takes his inspiration from one place, and one place only; the truly wild outdoors. Outside loose parts can fall from the sky, be dug from the ground, plucked from a branch, or drop from a bird’s wing. The sounds, textures, and  smells are all ever-changing and we could never, ever recreate such an amazing sensory experience  inside a house, even with dump trucks of glitter.

I had to watch my daughters play a lot to better understand how I could compete with mother nature and increase the number of “variables” (not necessarily the amount of stuff) within our home play environment. Over time, I noticed three categories of objects emerge that they “needed” to make their play more cohesive:

Loose Parts: hand-held objects that assume imagined identities through play.

Containers: objects used by my daughters for collecting, sorting and transporting loose parts as well as defining small spaces.

Expandable Parts: objects used by my daughters to construct and define large spaces

Now, whenever my daughters engage in loose-parts-style play, I try to make sure that all of these elements are available to them. When they are absent, tragic things have happened. Entire shelves of puzzles have been mined for loose parts, fabric and sewing notions have gone missing and Loose Parts Play has ravaged my home like a wildfire, consuming hours of my time in little loose parts cleanup. Although these ideas are only my own expansion on someone else’s theory, so far they have proven true for our sample size of two. I’m curious to hear about your observations. What drives the loose parts engine in your home or classroom?

Enjoy our family recipe for Loose Parts Play (indoors):

(Substitute as necessary)

Loose Parts
wooden blocks
plastic construction blocks
plastic bottle caps
acorns
shells
stones
cardboard tubes
clothespins
handkerchiefs
fabric scraps
stones
coins

Containers                                                                                                                    Sorting
Totem Boxes
egg cartons
cardboard fruit trays
graduated boxes

Transporting
small paper bags
child sized buckets
baskets
boxes

Collecting
nesting eggs (wooden or plastic)
Matryoshka dolls
jewelry boxes
matchboxes
small recycled plastic jars
small tins with lids

    Expandable Parts                                                                                                          Textiles
large scarves
large fabric pieces
tissue paper
newspaper
softened Kraft paper
child-sized carpets or rugs
blankets

“Fences”
cushions
interlocking cardboard pieces
over-sized, lightweight blocks,
Hula Hoops
jump ropes
long, lightweight cardboard tubes
fold-up cardboard screens

Beautiful DIY Cardboard Storage is HERE!

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Cardboard Totem Boxes: pattern and video tutorial https://www.etsy.com/listing/152961516/cardboard-totem-boxes-pattern-and-video?ref=shop_home_active

Cardboard Totem Boxes: pattern and video tutorial https://www.etsy.com/listing/152961516/cardboard-totem-boxes-pattern-and-video?ref=shop_home_active

Cardboard Totem Boxes: pattern and video tutorial https://www.etsy.com/listing/152961516/cardboard-totem-boxes-pattern-and-video?ref=shop_home_active

All I can say, is it’s a great feeling to start with an idea, work with it for more than 6 months, and get to this place.

I’m so excited to share this pattern with you! It started basically as a way to solve a problem I was having:
How do I organize my kid’s toys? (the little ones)
which led to other problems:
How can I make something that’s just right for them?
How can I make it out of cardboard?
How can I make it strong?
How can I make it recyclable?
How can I make it beautiful?
Well, curiosity can lead you down a long and winding path.
Mine included a re-acquaintance with high school geometry, learning more about photography and lighting, the search for affordable copyright free music, video editing, cardboard sourcing, explorations in color and pattern (ultimately inspired by the divine Japanese kimono), tool and material testing and lots and lots of watching kids play (the best part)!
I ended up with Totem Boxes.

A set of sculptural stacking boxes (the base of one box fits the top of another) that double as a nightstand, stool, ottoman or table and stool set for children. You can leave them plain, or decoupage them with decorative paper.

What do you do with them?

Put your favorite stuff inside. Yarn, yo-yos, matchbox cars and trucks, Legos, rubber stamps, fancy hats, scarves, alphabet magnets, musical instruments, play-dough, cookie cutters, wooden blocks…

I don’t exactly understand the magic, but my kids love cleaning up with the Totem Boxes. They make sorting the toys like another way to play.  You can easily move the boxes to where the mess is because they are modular, and then stack them up as you go. They look good sitting in the corner of your room, if you do nothing else. To me, they are functional sculpture.

And they’re not just for kids. Someday when I’m a knitter, I’m going to make a set with a hole on the side for the yarn to feed out while I knit. I’ll prop up my heels on the boxes as I relax and make gorgeous socks….

But are they durable enough for kids to use?

Months of testing and strength to support the sitting weight of a 150lb. adult makes me say YES.

What do I need to make them?

You will need lots of strong cardboard (like the kind that banana boxes or diaper boxes are made out of) and basic supplies like a pencil, white glue, a metal ruler, binder clips or clothespins and a utility knife. You will also need access to the internet, a computer and a printer to print out your pattern pieces and directions.

How long does it take?

Anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour for the first box, but after making about 20 of them, I’ve got it down to about 30 minutes a box (without decoupage). Best thought of as a weekend project. Say, if you wanted to make an amazing gift for your 2-5 year old niece or nephew’s birthday.

Where can I buy the pattern?

The pattern costs $12 and is currently available in my Etsy Shop: https://www.etsy.com/shop/cardboardcollect

It includes instructional PDFs in US Standard and Metric with written directions and a pictorial guide with links to 3 original video tutorials. The elementary school teacher in me did my best to appeal to audio and visual learners, so if you get frustrated by traditional patterns, fear not.

Banana Box Pull-out Drawers

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cardboard drawers

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Do you have a drawer that always stays organized, and another that does not?

I do….. and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make the drawer (or ahem drawers) that do not stay organized behave themselves.

So with many a pre-sleep meditation on a solution, I tackled my cardboard storage (and have many times re-tackled it) to this point of civilization. No stacking and re-stacking, no lids, No plastic, just banana boxes and binder clips.

I had to know my cardboard sources well to find 2 different boxes that would nest inside one another, but once I found the winning combination I was set. I used the top and bottom of a large banana box with one end removed and the bottom of a smaller box for the drawer. No glue, just a few clips to keep the edges in place. The best part is that I can use these on the back of my bike trailer for Cardboard Play Days, and recycle or reuse at the end of the event….. Banana Box, you are a loyal friend.