It’s not a box, it’s a… Making the most of a simple idea

By Xana de Nagy

Those who know me, know I like to listen to podcasts and, at the risk of repeating myself, one of my favourites is Slate’s Mom and Dad are Fighting – a great source of thought-provoking chatter about being a parent and the joys of dealing with children and teenagers in general.

Recently, on this podcast, one of the hosts recommended a book called Not a Box by Antoinette Portis. He described how he had read this to his 4-year-old son and how the book had inspired the family to make the most out of a cardboard box in their living room.

The book itself is very simple with very little text and incredibly simple illustrations. Initially, the book doesn’t seem to have much to it, but the idea behind it is that a mere cardboard box can be anything we want it to be.

Teaching outside the box

Being an ELT teacher, this immediately appealed to me and got me thinking about young learners in the ELT classroom and what I could use this for. As we all know, children can be very creative and come up with many different uses for a very simple object. This can be said of most of what we do in the YL classroom. Our job as teachers of YLs is to create an environment that feeds this creativity and to make the most of what children can come up with.

Young learners need opportunities to play and be creative and often ‘ready-made’ activities and materials don’t give them the freedom they require. A simple idea like this can be just the impetus to explore their imagination.

I’m sure that many of you have done similar things with other story books, games, etc. Many of the following ideas are not new but they may remind you of something you have done before and that may have become forgotten.

So, here are just a few of the ideas you could use the idea of the book for…

Very Young Learners

Tell the story – the book is a lovely simple story which can be explored with VYLs. The images convey the meaning and you can get the children involved by acting out the various uses, e.g. “It’s not a box, it’s a racing car.” The book doesn’t contain the actual words, just the pictures. This allows the teacher to adapt the language level to suit the group they are teaching.

What is it? – you could use the classic ‘keyhole’ idea here to slowly reveal the images to elicit and teach the various uses of the box, thus, encouraging the children to come up with their own ideas.

Miming – after telling the story and adding gestures to help convey and check the meaning of the words, you could have the children do their own mime game for the others to guess. This may need some prompting from you, as you may find that they end up miming the same activities over and over again.

Young Learners

Guessing game – use the idea of the book, but not necessarily the book itself, to have the children guess what an object is. This could be done by drawing simple pictures on the board. The teacher (initially) and then the children, take it in turns to do the drawing while the others guess. The picture should be drawn bit by bit to encourage some real language use. Some possibilities are:

  • Is it a …? No, it isn’t/Yes, it is.
  • It’s a…, isn’t it? No, it isn’t/Yes, it is.
  • It’s not a …, it’s a…

Create your own – have the children work in pairs to create their own pictures and then have them ‘tell the story’ by showing their drawings and saying… ‘It’s not a box, it’s a…’.

Make a box – turn this into a listening activity by giving the children instructions on how to make an origami paper box. This could then be used to encourage them to come up with different uses for the box itself, feeding in and practising the necessary vocabulary.


Time capsule/Memory box – nothing new here, just an old favourite. Bring in a box and have them discuss what they would put in the box to make a time capsule or imagine that it is someone’s memory box. Lots of scope here for language input and creativity. This could be a class project or better still done in groups and then shared as a class to vote for the best one.

Speculating – encourage them to speculate on the box, the contents, uses, etc. Some language that could be exploited here is:

  • What’s in it?
  • What’s it for?
  • It could/might/must be/have been…
  • It can be used for/to…

Writing – have them write instructions for making a box, the story behind the box, a description of a box, describing the contents of the box for others to guess, etc.

In my experience, young learners often adapt the activities slightly and are often much more creative than me. These ideas are just the starting point. Let the learners take the ideas and make them their own, let their creativity and natural curiosity shape the language and lesson. It’s up to us, the teachers, to guide them through the activities and ensure they generate some interesting and useful language learning moments in our lessons.

There are other story books that follow the same idea. Roger McGough’s What on Earth can it Be? is another example. However, this one is more challenging in terms of language level but also gives ample scope for creativity in the classroom. These books are just a couple of many that can be used in a similar way.

Not a Box uses a cardboard box, but of course you could adapt the ideas for any object. An apple, a pen, a ball, a book, a… I’ll leave that up to you or better still, to the imaginations of your Young Learners.

Author's Bio: Xana is a teacher/teacher trainer in Lisbon. She started teaching in 1984 and training in 1990. She spends most of her time working on CELTA courses, but also trains on IHCAM, Delta, IHCYLT courses and runs sessions for state school teachers. She has always had a special interest in teaching children and has a MSc in TEYL.


McGough, R & Monks, L– 2002 - What on Earth can it Be? - Puffin Books

Portis, A - Not a Box – 2006 - HarperCollins Children’s Books

Podcast – Mom and Dad are Fighting