Mini Discovery Boxes for Open-Ended Play

For a while I have been planning to put together some boxes of materials from some of our Discovery Boxes to encourage free, open-ended, investigative and creative play. I found some small boxes for just £1 each at Ikea and used them to add a range of multi-sensory materials on some low shelves that the girls can access independently.

What’s in the boxes?

 Dried penne pasta and spaghetti.

 Coloured straws, chopped to varying lengths.

 Thick, chenille pipe-cleaners, cut to different lengths.

 Cardboard tubes of differing thicknesses, cut to different lengths and a few with curved edges.

 A stack of empty egg cartons.

 Some small, wooden blocks and shapes, both plain wood and coloured on some sides.

 Foam shapes and letters from the window picture scenes and other shapes, come cut with small holes in.

 Plastic, shiny, coloured, small eggs that fit together.

 They happened to fit exactly on the shelves (phew!) and can be reached and taken down to play with by both girls.

 They have loved using them so far and I have just let them get on with using and playing with the materials in any way that they like and, after initially just making a lot of mess, they are now beginning to do some interesting things with them! From using the tubes to make funny noses and blow trumpets to filling the gg cartons with various tid bits of “treasure”,  they are having lots of curious fun!

One day I stumbled across the boxes emptied of their original contents, lined up on the sofa and arranged like this with the foam letters and some wooden people! Inside each box was a “birthday picnic” for all of the “friends” to share.

 On another occasion Cakie started to thread pipe cleaners and straws through the foam shapes with holes in, making some lovely art work. 

And between them they patiently built some structures using the wooden blocks and balanced some of the shiny eggs on the top. The blocks have proven very popular and are often combined with other materials during their play.

I think there will be plenty of opportunities for investigating and creating interesting play scenes and I look forward to seeing what they do next. I have some more materials ready and I may swap the contents of some boxes after a few weeks to see what they make of them.

Cakie: 2.10
Pop: 1.4

Learning Links:

  • sensory: exploring and investigating materials and their properties using all of the senses
  • maths: counting/ sorting/ ordering/ 2D & 3D shapes/ grouping/ building/ capacity/ problem solving
  • literacy: language skills- vocabulary and describing words/ role play language and story-telling
  • creative: telling stories through play/ making instruments / making 3D models/ large scale art
  • motor skills: stacking/ rolling/ threading/ building/ balancing/ squeezing/ fixing together
  • phse: working independently and collaboratively/ sustaining involvement in self-chosen activities


  1. says

    I love this idea, and I’ve done smaller scale activities with my 21 month old. But I’m curious – with so many bins of different objects, which all have lots of small pieces, how do you deal with the clean up factor? Are you able to teach the girls to sort and clean up as part of the activity (Montessori style)? Or is clean up just something you have to deal with as a result of this type of activity?


  2. says

    We are working on teaching the cleaning up method, though if you know us you will know we are FAR from achieving it yet! I try to get them to pick things up while singing and sometimes it works a treat, others not so well!

    I definitely think that the benefit of the type of free play far outweighs the annoyance of the mess, but on days where my tolerance is low I just reduce the number of boxes available. But yes, our living room floor is definitely messy for a good proportion of each day!

  3. says

    That’s great.We have some kinde of discovery boxees of our own,but it’s interesting to finde some new idea.For example,we don’t have foam shapes and letters,and since my daughter is allready 5, that could be so interesting for her.And all this boxes are interesting for toddlers and for older kids as well,I assure you ,my daughter was playing with wooden blocs just today,she was building the castle for lego figures :-)

  4. says

    This is such a great idea. I am going to be looking for some little boxes at the store this weekend. I think that my daughter will love being able to open boxes and discover what is inside.

    I just found your blog, but I am very glad I did!

  5. Anonymous says

    I’m wondering where you got those wooden blocks/shapes? They are so perfect for this but I seem to only be able to find big, heavy ones! thanks.

  6. says

    Those boxes are such a perfect size! Do you know which Ikea ones they are? Would love to order a set. Also are they stackable when empty? By the way I should also say I love your blog it gives me endless ideas for free creative play with my daughter. So glad to have found it!

    • says

      So sorry! Yes they are stackable when empty and also come with lids which is great. But the lids don’t click them shut, which is irritating! I don’t know which they are by name, so sorry, but they are the smallest ones they do and about £1/ $2