Here’s why young children often prefer wrapping paper and boxes to actual presents

Julie Brierley, Lecturer in Early Years & Education, University of Hull is reporting in The Conversation as to why young children prefer wrapping paper and boxes to the toy inside.

We’ve all been there: you spend an unthinkable amount on a child’s toy – lulled by the promise that the interaction with the flashing lights and whooshing noises will excite, stimulate and educate our little people. Yet on the big day, we watch as our child’s interest in the toy quickly diminishes and the attraction of the discarded wrapping paper and packaging takes over.

We watch with confusion as our young children show us the real pleasures of Christmas – not their new shiny toy, but all that is destined for the recycling bin. And as they roll around on the floor in the wrapping paper and jump in and out of the boxes, we question our own sanity in spending ridiculous sums of money on a child who would have clearly preferred a cardboard box for Christmas.

But while our child’s preoccupation with screwed up wrapping paper and packaging may seem barmy to us adults, it is in fact just another way to play – and can help children to learn about themselves and the world around them.

The psychology of wrapping paper

At a very early age, children use play to drive their own learning. And when young children are allowed and actively encouraged to explore and follow their own interests, they develop understanding from their actions.

In recent years, neuroscientific studies have led to a greater appreciation of the importance of young children’s brain development. These studies have shown us that the first three years of a child’s life are a critical period for learning and development. This confirms a direct relationship between the quality of experiences young children gain and the growth and development of the brain.

So, when children explore and experiment with objects such as boxes, paper and ribbons, they are using both their sensory and physical senses to extend their thinking.

“What is this and what can I do with it? Can I fit my hand inside? what else fits in?” – young children’s questioning minds are pivotal to their learning. And engagement in self-directed play helps to aid learning and supports the development of language as well as mathematical, scientific, creative, personal and social concepts.

The power of play

In today’s society, the power of play is frequently misunderstood and underestimated. Children these days have less time to “free play” given that so much of their playtime is structured or involves a parental onlooker.

But young children are physical beings, who gain sensory perceptions and feedback from the whole of their bodies – and these perceptions contribute to essential brain development. So seemingly meaningless actions such as twirling, jumping, rolling and messing around with objects can actually help children to learn about who they are and the world around them.

Through the sensory and physical exploration of the discarded boxes and Christmas wrapping paper, the foundations of learning and cognitive development are occurring. Children become sensitised and motivated to further their explorations, allowing more complex thoughts and understanding to develop.

So a young child who repeatedly fills and empties a box, climbs in and out, puts things in then tips them out, is not just making a mess. Instead they are exploring the “insideness” of the object – which helps them to understand concepts such as capacity, volume and space.

And with this in mind, rather than just filling the toy cupboard with a load of manufactured creations, it is important that young children are also able to make their own discoveries and to construct their own understanding, too.

So this Christmas, make sure your child has a chance to play with all the wrapping paper before it is neatly tidied up and disposed of. Because not only are you helping them to cultivate a desire to learn, you are also helping to develop their inquisitive resolve and creative expression.

You will also be allowing them the opportunity to strengthen the bits of their brain that are responsible for development – and this will help to ensure they have the foundations for future learning. And what could be a better gift than that?

 Read more articles from The Conversation

Do you know any children who would rather the wrapping paper than the toy inside? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter. ~ Sophie

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The Conversation

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Categories: Pre-school.


  1. Julie is absolutely right! The first thing I tell a school when they invite me to help them improve playtimes is to forget about expensive play equipment – all they need is scrap (that’s waste materials if ‘scrap’ means food to you). 
    Cardboard boxes, bread crates, foam pipe, sand, water, tyres, a mud kitchen with proper utensils…the list goes on and on. 
    At OPAL we have helped hundreds and hundreds of schools over the past ten years to save tens of thousands of pounds on pointless, low play value equipment that has a life of six to eight weeks at best, before every child is bored with it and is frustrated with playtimes again.
    It’s 20% of the school day! One fifth of school life is spent outside playing, so why on earth would anyone ignore it? Ofsted would much rather see (we know because they consistently say so in our clients’ reports) every child in the school fully engaged and happily learning, active, sociable, creative, mature, determined, self-confident and loving every moment, than see poor personal development, behaviour and welfare on display each breaktime.
    It isn’t just the UK either. Schools in Canada, Australia and New Zealand have also adopted our approach. We include risk management according to the new HSE approved advice, a clear play policy, staff skills, a five year strategy, enthusiastic governor and parent endorsement, logical links to the curriculum…every aspect of school playtimes is improved, because when playtime is great, school is great. 
    And it all starts with the humble cardboard box.

  2. Some evidence is emerging of a ‘reverse Flynn Effect’: that, while average IQ of young people rose steadily through most of the 20th century, it has been level or declining since about 1990.
    As this is seen in many countries it suggests a global cause.  One suggestion is the computer-games effect: when children played with real things (as in this article), or climbed trees, dressed dolls, made dens etc, they were learning about the real world.
    Ever since Super Mario could jump while in mid-air, their brains have been tuned out from the real world and the important brain development is reduced.

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