Cardboard boxes and cognitive flexibility

Sitting on the floor in a 3yr old classroom this week, I was a fortunate witness to an amazing event.


I watched as the classroom teachers synergized theory, research, and practice in a masterful display.  What did it take?  Several cardboard boxes, a notepad, and patience. And teachers who know what they are doing.


I watched as one child climbed into a box and declared it a train.  Slowly, children from around the room were drawn like a magnet to this spark of creativity. They abandoned the art table, the easel, the puzzles, and the blocks, and before long there were eleven children clamoring into and out of several well-worn cardboard boxes.  The teachers, mindful to follow the children’s lead and knowledgeable about what types of play are highly developmentally beneficial, subtly withdrew themselves from the children’s interactions. One grabbed a video camera, and another a notebook.


Here is what happened next, through the voices of the children:


(Box rips) There’s a leak in our boat!

No, it’s a train.

No, it’s a plane.

A choo choo train airplane!

Everyone, get on your seatbelts.

Here we go! Choo choo!


Here we are. I know, that was a long trip.

Oh no, it’s night time!

There’s no pickles in the car, we can’t go!

Here’s some – they’re real.

Here’s some ice cream.

Snack time!

There’s a lot of cars in our train!

Could I have some gummy bears?

C’mon into our train, we’re almost leaving!

Oh no! (runs towards box)

Our tracks are broke in to half!

But I have superpowers in my hand.

There’s a fire on the train!

My powers can eat the fire.

Oh no – there’s a wolf – we have to hide!

The wolf is gone.

No, he’s not.

Yay, he’s gone!

Yea, you see? He’s gone.

Ahhh there’s a hundred of them!

I’m super and I have a mission.

Our train is broken!


So what exactly is going on here? The children responded to changes in perspectives about 18 times, give or take (try it yourself – go back to the children’s words and see how many times the scenario changes).  Nearly every line of this dramatic play asked children to “nimbly adjust to changed demands or priorities,” which is how Adele Diamond, a leading researcher in developmental cognitive neuroscience, defines cognitive flexibility.  She continues, “Switching between perspectives, adjusting to change, and “thinking outside the box” are the essence of cognitive flexibility.”  Examining the research base, Diamond concludes that these skills are, “critical for success in school and life.”


Diamond’s research extends the earlier theory of Lev Vygotsky, the preeminent 20th century developmental psychologist whose writing and insights into childhood development dominate the field. Vygotsky tells us, “The creation of an imaginary situation is…the first manifestation of the child’s emancipation from situational constraints.”  Through fantasy play like that described above, children are able to flexibly approach their environment.  By dropping teacher-directed activities and moving towards old cardboard boxes, these children took a step towards developing their cognitive flexibility. It is evident in their words as they fluidly change the game: they are not shackled by tunnel vision; they are able to examine multiple ideas and comfortably adapt to new ones.


By stitching together Vygotsky’s decades old theory (he wrote it in the 1920s), with Diamond’s contemporary research (the publication quoted above is from 2007), our teaching practice becomes more closely aligned with what children need.  This combination of theory, research, and practice is the gold standard towards which we strive.  And what it looked like, in this instance, was children excitedly exploring their world from within a cardboard box.


So when we watch our students playing with smiles on our faces, we are smiling not only because of how cute they are (and boy, they are!). We are smiling because we know they are engaged in the foundational experiences they will need to develop into confident, intelligent, life-long learners.