Discovery Box 13: Coloured Stacking Cups

We’ve been exploring coloured light and shadows, along with some fun construction, with our latest Discovery Box
This was one of those typical you-know-you’re-an-early-years-teacher-when moments. If you work with young children, you will know exactly what I mean! I was walking the aisles of Sainsburys and stopped with two eager girls to browse the Valentine’s chocolates, when what should I spy but this wonderful packet of fluorescent plastic cups (disposable shot glasses I think!) Of course, I just HAD to have them, knowing they would be good for something, although I had no idea what! 

 So, as is always best with these things, I popped them in a Discovery Box and presented them to the girls to play with at home one day, to see what wonderfully creative, open-ended play ideas they would have.

 If you haven’t read about heuristic play or the idea behind these Discovery Boxes, please look at the tab at the top of the blog or click here to read more.

 C immediately set to work trying to make them into a “tower.” To do this she stacked them inside each other, so that she became quickly disappointed as they didn’t amount to much. I started to play with a few on the table, turning them face down instead of face up and she copied, quickly realising that she could make patterns, lines and shapes with them this way around.

 We then started to build them on top of each other by making “bridges” between them and she was very keen to see how tall she could make the construction become.

 As we played, the light through the living room window moved and started to create the most beautiful “light shadows” on the table. She was fascinated by these and loved making them move and changing their appearance by moving the cups.

 She lined them up so that the colour shadows touched the cups in front of them and tried moving the cups together to see what would happen when the shadows overlapped. In a couple of instances it was even possible to mix the colours this way and that was a big WOW moment!

The light didn’t last long and she was disappointed that the shadows disappeared, but it was a great opportunity for explaining about sunlight and how the Earth moves!
These cups have since been used in play dough play, role play cooking and a treasure hunt game! No doubt they will feature plenty of times in future open-ended play sessions too.
Learning Links:
science (KUW): explore light and shadows through experimenting and play, begin to ask questions about why/ who/ what/ where and when, investigate the world using all senses, build structures and models
physical development: use care and control to build structures
creativity: build in 3Dimensions

If you liked this post you may also like to see all the other Discovery Boxes we have put together so far:


  1. says

    He he. Great pics. Love moments like that – we’ve recently had much fun with air-filled packing pillows. I just handed them over to the kids and was wowed with how they played with them.

    Great excuse to have a ‘shots party’ now too, eh. (maybe not for a little while, eh) x

  2. says

    I saw these same shot glasses at our party store when I was buying clear ones for our mini pom pom milkshakes. I loved the colors and was trying to figure out a good excuse to buy them. Looks like I have one now, they’re perfect for the light table! Thank you! ; )

  3. says

    Love this! I have often seen these cups and wanted to buy them. I haven’t yet because I couldn’t figure out what to do with them, now I know! Thank you!

  4. says

    Hi! New to reading your blog… I just saw these in the Valentines section in our grocery store yesterday too and thought my kids would like them and they were only a $1, but I didn’t get them for some reason. Now you have me wishing I had bought them.

  5. says

    Love this post! I’ve been wanting to do a post about C and her play with cups for the past year… has been on my list! I have bunches of pics of her using cups to stack and do other sorts of things. These cups have gotten more use than some of her most expensive toys. Even friends have come over and played with these cups! I’m set to buy some more cups too. In the elementary school where I taught, the physical Education teacher did cup stacking with her students as an activity and. They were special plastic cups for this purpose. She learned in a teaching conference how this cup tacking improved concentration and test taking skills…imagine that? You may have just inspired me to finally post about her cup play!

    • says

      Yes! We also had a “speed stacking club” at our school that happened in break times and was supposed to promote concentration, motor and interactive skills. Kids loved it!
      Look forward to seeing your post too!

  6. says

    Loved those colored shadows! You could frame those prints! Great activity! I’m going to have to keep my eye out for those.

  7. says

    We love these and have had them for years! They are a bit chipped and beat up looking now. :) We like them in the bathtub.

  8. Debbie says

    I’m a huge fan of your blog and my little boys and I love love love the ideas. I just wonder how you organize the discovery boxes. Are they a one time thing where you put them out for a day or two (or until the kids tire of them) then put them away till some later time or do the kids have access to all of the different discovery boxes. How do you introduce them to the kids (is it more than just, “Here’s a discovery box…go for it!”)? Thanks in advance for the help.

    • says

      Hi Debbie, that’s a great question! I tend to pop the items into a box or bag (sometimes even wrapped up just for added excitement, but not often!) and give it to them to see what they will do. Occasionally I will suggest some other ideas once they seem like they’ve stopped playing and that can rejuvenate the play or steer it in a completely new direction. Also, I may pair materials that I think will lend themselves to certain types of exploration e.g. teaming beans with tubes meant i was pretty sure they’d do posting down chutes, and colanders with pipe cleaners led to sticking them through the holes.
      I don’t leave all the boxes out, but I do find ways to give them access to some of the more popular materials. If you see the post on the Mini Discovery Boxes (type in search bar) that shows when I put a whole bunch of these things out on shelves in tubs. I don’t have it set up like that anymore but I do let them use straws/ tubes etc whenever they request them. I have lots of these things in jars and baskets in the cupboard, ready to go! Hope that helps!

  9. polly says

    I attended a brilliant workshop here in France by an artist who has made a book for children with images of plastic cutlery/crockery! it sounds dull but the photography is fantastic. The workshop was amazing! We all (parents and toddlers) made towers using cups, bowls, saucers etc (the only rule being that you couldn’t put things inside other things)we then joined them all together using coloured plastic cutlery to make a little village!!