It is Ella’s first birthday, and her mom is excited. She places a brightly wrapped present in front of Ella and tears just a small portion of the shiny paper. Ella takes over, pulling on the paper and scrunching it in her hands. Some tape gets stuck on her finger, and she pulls at it; then it gets stuck on another finger, and she pulls at that. With some help, the baby eventually tears all the paper off the box. Her mother opens the box and takes out a musical elephant. She shows Ella how, when she squeezes its foot, the elephant sings a song! Ella looks at the elephant, then returns to the box and paper. Mom continues to squeeze the elephant’s feet, trying to interest Ella in the real toy!

Wow, what happened here? Why does 12-month-old Ella prefer the wrapping paper and the box to the fancy toy inside? The answer lies in her development. While the toy is cute and interesting to adults, Ella can’t do much with it.  And the elephant does not offer the endless opportunities that the box and the paper do for exploring with all the senses. Children at one year of age are in the stage of development Piaget (a psychologist who studied child development) called sensorimotor play when babies actively explore toys and other objects—first with their eyes, then with their hands and mouths.

Ella, the birthday girl, spent her first year of life practicing this kind of play. In the first two months, she mostly looked at toys, because her hands and fingers were still developing the skills needed to reach for and hold on to things. Then, from 4 to 6 months of age, at every opportunity Ella reached out to pick up and hold toys and bring them to her mouth. Most 4- to 6-month-olds can look at, grasp, and bring toys and other items to their mouths.

From 6 to 8 months, babies’ skills grow and their play usually becomes more complex. They learn to transfer toys from hand to hand, turn them over, pass them to someone else, and finger, poke, and scratch at them. During this time, children develop the ability to drop one object for another. They like new things, so they might willingly drop what they have so they can grasp what is being offered. At the same time, they begin to develop object permanence—they understand that the ball that rolled behind the chair is still there, even though they can’t see it.  As a result of this milestone, a child can remove a blanket covering a toy or crawl down the hall to retrieve a teddy bear. The paper and the box provide endless opportunities to experiment and explore. These are the reasons why, at 12 months, this birthday girl likes her wrapping paper and box best! 

During the next six months, Ella will experiment with objects. She will scrunch the paper and listen to the noise it makes. When she pulls the scrunched paper apart, she will see that it has a new shape. She might tear the paper and put the pieces in the box. She is likely to do this again and again. The box is a container she can fill, dump, and turn over and bang on.

At 18 to 24 months, Ella will move into a new stage—symbolic play.  Now she will use objects as “stand ins” for something else.  For example, she might put a block up to her ear and pretend it is a phone. She might move the block along the rug, pretending it is a car. Ella will still play by herself, but she will also play alongside, and sometimes even with, other children and grownups. She will begin to solve problems through play, as she explores how to put a cube into a hole or fit a set of nesting cups together. And then Ella will turn the box into a house or a hat or anything else she wants it to be.v

The opportunities are as endless as her imagination!

Think about it

Watch how your baby plays. What does her play tell you about her development? How does she use her senses to explore objects? What interests her? Are there safe places on the floor where she can play and learn?

Try it

If your baby is younger than 12 months, offer one new object to explore every week. Just be sure that anything you give a baby is large enough not to be swallowed and safe enough to go in a mouth.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Fill a basket with items that appeal to touch, smell, and sound. Include a small cloth pillow with cinnamon sticks sewn inside, wooden spoons, and an elastic bracelet with bells securely sewn on.
  • Provide plastic or stainless steel bowls or a plastic jug and a variety of materials for dumping and filling.
  • Introduce new items at bath time such as plastic measuring cups with handles or a colander.
  • Collect containers with lids that open and close, like plastic jars of different sizes and boxes with lids that can be taken off and put back on. 


Source: Adapted from L.G. Gillespie, 2009, “Why Do Babies Like Boxes Best?,” Rocking and Rolling, Young Children 64 (3): 48–49.

© National Association for the Education of Young Children — Promoting excellence in early childhood education