For years I have extolled the value of empty cardboard boxes—the ones in which your big appliances arrive—in the lives of children. You see cardboard box to be recycled; your child sees secret cave, fire station, beauty parlor, club house. But Caine Monroy has broadened even my wildest dreams. He built Caine’s Arcade
Caine’s dad George claims that he is no special parent. He says he simply knew his son, didn’t force him to do what he didn’t want, and allowed him the space, time, and “stuff” to do his thing. Caine filled his hours with empty boxes while George worked in his Boyle Heights auto body parts shop, side by side. Voila! Caine’s Arcade was born. And what a stir it has created in this city of over-programmed, do-it-all kids and their super goal oriented parents.
Call it down time, call it play time. I call it critical to a child’s development. The importance of unstructured time— no sports practice, no enrichment classes, no tutors, no school work, no playdates, no screens—cannot be over emphasized. Real downtime is when creativity goes up. It is when children’s resourcefulness and creative juices are squeezed, it’s when minds hatch crazy-good ideas. I am quite sure Mrs. Bell, little Alexander Graham’s mother, didn’t schedule his days dawn to dark. I can picture him playing with wires and such (to which we, in our hyper safety conscious world, wouldn’t think of allowing our kids access!)
Children today are never bored. They have no time to be bored; they’re too busy. But it is in those unstructured times when there’s nothing else to do that ideas are born, ideas like using cardboard boxes to create an arcade. But when cries of I’m bored! send parents into fits of anger (With all those toys you can’t find one thing to do?) or guilt (I have to get my work done him so I ‘ll just find something for him to do), the gift of boredom is lost. We just can’t tolerate our child’s unhappiness or boredom, anyway.
On top of that, many of the toys we buy children today stifle their budding creativity. In the olden days, Legos were purchased by the bag, a whole bunch of different size pieces, used over and over again. Today you buy the Lego Castle or the Lego ATV. The child puts it together, copying the picture on the box (that is, if he can without your help). It’s done, and there it sits. Now what? The put-together toys that come without the template are the one that beg the child to create his own masterpiece. They are the ones that invite the child to keep inventing, playing long after the “playing stage” is reputed to be over.
I love loose parts. I know they wreak havoc on playroom clean up—all those pieces strewn about. But it is from loose parts that the imagination’s-wanderings come to life. And it is from loose parts that ideas and inventions are born. Loose parts come in all materials, all shapes, all sizes. They are lengths of tubes or bendy wire, holiday card fronts, scraps of fabric, of ribbon, of wood, empty food boxes, useless keys. Teachers know how to view other people’s trash as classroom treasures. So should you. They are the seeds of resourcefulness and creation.
And the next time UPS truck rolls up with your delivery, get ready . You can have the TV because the real fun is in the box.