Toddler Training: Climbing into, and out of, boxes

 At a therapist workshop I was running I was asked the following question: "How can one teach a child to climb into a box. Repeated demonstration of the action has not been not successful." 
My answer at the time was that, without watching the child’s strategy and what was constraining his actions, I really could not answer the question.  In fact I did not know offhand how children climb into boxes, so I went on a mission  looking for video footage of my grandchildren climbing in to boxes at different ages. 

A toddler climbing into a box

Will aged 13 months solved the problem by going onto all fours.  
will 13m into bax 1.jpg    will 13m into bax 2.jpg   will 13m into bax 4.jpg   will 13m into bax 6.jpg

Older children adapt their strategy

The strategy used by an older child depends on the height of the side of the box, the angle of approach, as well as momentum generated by their own actions. 
There seem to be several motor problems to solve:
  • how to lift the leg up high enough to get it over the edge of the box 
  • maintaining balance 
  • controlling momentum 
  • how to hold onto the box sides without the hands getting in the way of the moving leg

The sequences of frames and video clips below illustrate these points. 

Roan climbing into a box with high sides

In the first sequence below, the problem to be solved seems to be how to lift the legs up high enough to get each foot over the edge of the box while maintaining balance at the same time.

In the middle of the sequence there is an interesting little change of plan. Initially Roan holds onto the box with two hands. This is obviously better for maintaining balance, but means that the left arm will get in the way of the left leg being lifted over the side of the box. So it is moved and she relies on taking weight on the right hand only to complete the action. 

roan stepping into a box 11.jpg   roan stepping into a box 12.jpg     roan stepping into a box 13.jpg   roan stepping into a box 14.jpg   roan stepping into a box 15.jpgroan stepping into a box 16.jpg

Will climbing into a box with high sides

will climbing into a box 11.jpg   will climbing into a box 12.jpg  will climbing into a box 13.jpg   will climbing into a box 15.jpg   will climbing into a box 16.jpg   

Roan stepping over a box with a low side

Roan manages to stay upright as she steps into the first box, but as she steps into the second box she looses her balance and needs to catch herself on her hands on the side of the box. 

roan stepping forwards 84.jpg   roan stepping forwards 86.jpg   roan stepping forwards 87.jpg   roan stepping forwards 90.jpg   roan stepping forwards 91.jpg   roan stepping forwards 91.jpg 

What did I learn reviewing the strategies these two children use to climb into a box?

Experience of stepping over obstacles has taught Roan and Will a great deal about:

  • Matching the flexion abduction of the hip' to allow clearance of the foot, to the height of the box side
  • Strategies for maintaining balance when lifting the leg high - this includes using the arms to counteract the large shift in the position of the COM on Roan's part. Will makes more active use of hand support to maintain balance. 
  • How to position the hands on the side of the box to allow foot clearance - this requires forward planning of the action and will have been learned through repeated experience of similar situations. t

For subscribers: Watching the video clips of Will and Roan climbing into boxes, gives a better insight into the smooth coordination between the body segments needed for this task. This coordination comes from having a great deal of experience of stepping over obstacles and climbing into boxes. Watch them here

The answer to the original question: how to teach a child to climb into a box

The answer to this question is: adapt the task to allow success and then change the task, to make it progressively more difficult. Provide verbal promoting as needed.

  • Start with a larger box with low sides to allow easy foot clearance. Allow the child to experiment with different ways of getting into and out of the box. But also encourage the child to step into the box using hand support as needed. 
  • Putting the box next to a wall will allow the child to use light touch on the wall for balance. 
  • Then progressively use boxes that are smaller and have higher sides. A box with a smaller perimeter offers greater challenges as regards placing the hands so as to allow foot clearance. 

What will the child be learning? Another opportunity to build a rich array of representations for solving motor problems.

This activity will provide the child with multiple opportunities to solve the motor problem and build a larger bank of representations that can be used in similar situations.

Climbing into a box requires a great deal of coordinated action for balance - another opportunity to build representations that can be used implicitly in similar situations.

Repeated climbing into and out of a box also builds strength and flexibility.