The Button Box is really where it all began.
My mother used to have a button box when I was a child in the ’70s. She was Queen of the Jumble Sale Committee in our village, and as such, had exclusive access to all the best buttons from the old clothes she collected and organised. The original ‘up-cycler’, she would cut up old dresses for patchwork, snip off the buttons, unravel the old woolly jumpers and re-knit them into child-size cardigans for us. She also had some antique buttons from our nan, who I think began the collection at a time when it was fashionable for ladies to collect pretty buttons.
My father also contributed some uniform dress buttons from his old RAF jackets. I remember playing for hours with this button box as a child. It taught me counting, colours, size and shape, adding and subtracting. It was always brought out for neighbours’ children to play with. My mother donated her button box to me about 20 years ago, and I got to thinking how I could build on it as a fun educational resource.
When I started working at an after school club in 1994 I decided to let the children play with the buttons, to see if they could help me come up with any new ideas. For some reason it attracted a crowd of 6 year old boys!
We had a huge amount of fun with it. One little boy made a button collage in the shape of a horse. The only way he could be persuaded to part with it at the end of the day was if I put all the buttons in a little jar, which he carried round everywhere, proudly showing his mum his jar of ‘horse’ at home time.
After exploring button pictures, we told a button story about a little button who had a birthday and invited other buttons, who all brought him a different button as a present. One of the presents was a time machine. All the buttons climbed into it and pressed the GO button, which zoomed them off to the time of the dinosaurs (cue lots of rough-looking spiky buttons) and then the time of King George (a historic portrait button). He invited them to his button palace (made up of gold and silver buttons) and provided a Royal birthday tea (multicoloured buttons representing different foods). Then they all zoomed off home back to their button mums and got into their little button beds. You get the idea.
A couple of years ago I got the button box out again and took a fresh look at it. I put the buttons in a much prettier box and started to add little extras…..
I put in some bowls and little bags and boxes to hold the buttons. I had lots of fun covering the little boxes in pretty paper and sorting all the buttons as I used to when I was small.
After the first few sessions I also added a rainbow coloured accessory ‘toolkit’ consisting of silicone and wooden bowls, rainbow coloured melamine spoons, little Chinese silk bags, tongs, ladles, felt mats and little jugs, in all the colours of the rainbow. They all added to the possibilities! Now the buttons and kit are a fantastic colour teaching aid (among other uses).
Every child who has opened this box is instantly fascinated! It is everyone’s number one favourite box.
The children love treasure hunting, picking out their favourites, matching identical buttons or coloured buttons to paint charts, driving cars through them, decorating pompom cupcakes with them, challenging themselves to pick up the tiniest buttons with tongs, putting huge buttons in the biggest box and small buttons in the tiniest box, picking up blue buttons with a blue spoon and transferring them to a blue bowl…..
They find a hundred different ways to play with the buttons, from simple scooping and pouring to sorting according to colour (and trying to match buttons to colours on paint chart strips), filling treasure bags, making button flower gardens, finding all the gold buttons or the animal buttons or the really old buttons.
We also tell really advanced button stories: I ask the children to find all the “Royal Palace” buttons, the “wicked witch” buttons or the “naughty goblin” buttons, we arrange them into the shapes of different buildings or places, and then we act out a story where we move the main character buttons through swamps, rivers, forests and rainbows to tell a story. We also make button timelines from newest to oldest button or biggest to smallest, or sparkliest to dullest. Often the whole family gets involved. “See who can find a button that an old lady might have had on her cardigan!” “What button might a fairy wear? Or a king have on his Royal robe?”
Making a button spiral, from largest to smallest, or a flower, heart, pattern or rainbow is another lovely activity.
Safety Note: Because buttons are not classified as toys, their use by children falls into rather a grey area as far as safety regulations are concerned. If your children are small, I would recommend that a button box be used with a supervising adult. If you want to make a button box for your children, do take into account their age, and bear in mind the possibility that any small item can be swallowed or choked on by very young children.