Study Boxes: Deepening learning during continuous provision.

I have visited Julian Swindale's class in Bristol many times. His practice is underpinned by thoughtfully placed provocations, a deep pedagogical understanding of the impact of play and a respect for each individual child. Each time I have visited Julian's classroom, he has designed a new and impactful way to engage children through play. I am always in awe of the depth to which the young learners in his class can go with their learning - From learning about algebra, to decoding long words to detailed to careful Art, the 3 and 4 year olds in Julian's class take their learning to its edge and make leaps and bounds of progress - both progress which is measured by our school system and the nuanced progress of confidence, strength of relationships, happiness and ever more refined self-awareness as a person and learner.

This blogpost explores one area of practice that Julian is developing - The Study Box.

We would love to hear your reflections on Julian's Study Boxes - There are a few questions at the end of the blogpost to get your thinking going! Do comment at the end of the blogpost and/or tag us @letsgetplayful and Julian, @joolone on Twitter with your reflections.

An example of a "Study Box" - The Magnitude Study Box

What’s the idea behind study boxes?

The idea is to extend and raise the bar on continuous provision and independent playful learning and have a broader range of resources for children to learn from.

Why boxes?

The great thing about a box is it has a lid, so the contents can be kept secure, kept together and therefore used over and over again. Inside each box, in effect, is a lesson, provocation, playful experience in a box ready and available.

What might be in them?

Often the Boxes contain resources that provide key learning I wish the children to experience. Somethings they are created and driven by the interests of the children or made by the children themselves.

The cycle of study / structure for play

The structure around using the boxes is a key to their success. It’s based on the Montessori cycle of play. It’s a learning routine that is followed completely independently. The rules of engagement are clear but contain total creative freedom within the structure. When a child wishes to play with or explore a box they first select a rug to work on and roll it out on the floor, creating a blank canvas. They select the box and explore and create the learning in the space. When the child has finished the cycle is then completed in reverse- the box is carefully repacked, checking all contents are inside. The rug is rolled up and both put away ready for someone else. The child moves on to free play of another box - their choice.

Girl rolling out mat for focused Montessori play.

Where’s the play?

The boxes are open ended and can be combined with other resources. Children often observe other children playing with the boxes and learn from each other. There is generally no fixed outcome - although of course the contents of the boxes are carefully designed to give key experiences.

Adult role

The adults study the boxes too. During small group time an adult may play with a box, following the cycle of study, and find creative ways of learning from it. The children comment on the work as the adult explores it. No one is expected to recreate what the adult has done, but rather find new ways of exploring the box.

The advantages of study boxes.

A key advantage of the boxes is that a child can spend as long as they like with it, and, revisit it as many times as they like, this deepening their learning. We have found that children will often revisit a box building knowledge and understanding with great enthusiasm.

Overall context within the day.

The boxes are a part of the continuous provision. Children are free to explore the environment and play freely and creatively within it. They may at any time chose to play with a study box and work within the carefully constructed architecture around it. Having done this they may then chose to move on and play again in the environment in a less structured way.

A worked example of Study Boxes

This week, we've developed the "Magnitude Box". The children have started exploring enthusiastically. Below is how they have used the box so far:

The Magnitude Study Box includes cubes on the lid in descending order of magnitude as a key to the Magnitude symbol. It has 10 squares of wood with the magnitude symbol:

The Magnitude Box

A Nursery child independently plays with the Magnitude Box. He takes a rug to make a space and collects the Montessori Pink Tower and Brown Stairs. He builds a series of towers in descending order and places the symbols from the box to show the direction of descending magnitude:

First time playing with the Magnitude Box

The same child playfully rebuilds and creates a vertical tower. He repositions the symbols and incorporates them into the design but also to show the vertical flow of magnitude:

Child returns to play with the magnitude box in a different way

Two days later, the same Nursery Child returns to the study and takes another rug to create a canvas to work on. This time he collects the Magnitude Box and combines it with a collection of toys.“I’m making a magnitude picture”, he says. He visualises reality and works from imagined magnitude rather than the size of each toy.“ The toy grasshopper is humongous but it’s really tinnier than an elephant”:

Child returns, 2 days later and plays with the Magnitude Box in a different way.


We would love to hear your thoughts on Study Boxes:

  • Where do you see the learning in Study Boxes? Do you think this could be a useful way to deepen and extend learning through play?
  • Have you used something similar to Study Boxes in continuous provision? What has the impact been?
  • Could you see Study Boxes being developed meaningfully to enhance and deepen learning beyond Early Years?

Respond in the comments below or tag us on social media: @letsgetplayful @joolone

Julian Swindale