Building a Skinner Air Crib

Image of a Baby Sleeping in a Skinner Air CribI recently wrote about my experiences with B.F. Skinner’s Air Crib (or if you prefer, Baby Boxes). In this post, I’ll share what I remember about how the cribs my daughter and siblings and I used were made.

What is a Skinner Box? In this context, it’s a temperature-controlled, enclosed baby crib that requires no sheets, blankets, crib bumpers or other bedding. The essential ideas are to allow babies maximum freedom to move around and sleep without being constricted by clothing; to reduce laundry quantities to the minimum; and to allow the room the baby sleeps in to be used as more than just a nursery. Best of all, an air crib puts the baby at adult eye level — great for interaction, and also easy on backs.

These aren’t plans, per se . . . one of the advantages of the air crib is its flexibility, and adapting it to your circumstances is pretty much the point. Implementation is up to you — make it quick and basic, get a pro to draft a blueprint, or hire the whole job out and have a craftsperson make it out of old-growth-forest walnut. (Now that’s an heirloom!)

Here’s the short version — the ‘what-needs-to-be-done’ list:

  • Build a big box with an open front
  • At about waist level, build a ledge to support the mattress
  • Below the mattress supports, cut holes for two ventilation screens, making sure they face each other for best air flow
  • Add two light bulb sockets at the right and left sides, below the mattress ledge (these provide heat)
  • Link the sockets to an external switch on the crib
  • Build a protective shelf (screening or perforated) above the light bulbs (lift-out, if you’re not going to have access through the front) below the light bulbs
  • Build another shelf (also of screening or perforated material) (also, lift-out, if you’ll need access from the top)
  • Install a thermostat outside the box where adults can reach it
  • Place shallow evaporation pans below this second shelf (these control humidity)
  • Install a small fan in the ceiling
  • Make a mattress frame and lace a mesh mattress to the frame
  • Attach door(s)
  • Add legs or a cabinet beneath

Details:

Black and White Skinner Box

The two cribs my siblings and I used were identical and made from Masonite (lightweight but strong) and were set on wooden legs — probably 2x2s. You can just barely make out the legs in this black and white picture of our first Baby Box.

The doors were heavy glass, and opened just like any cabinet; they had latches all over the place to ensure that nobody took a tumble. The dual doors on our childhood boxes opened across the entire width of the crib; my daughter’s had a single door, not nearly as wide, but perfectly suited to the job, just the same.

Image of a Skinner Air Crib with a Side WindowMy daughter’s box was built-in, and took up approximately the space of a small closet. Hers had the single door in the front, but also had a non-opening window on one end, making it very light and airy. The interior walls were tongue-and-groove-pine. The dimensions were about 46 inches wide by 24 inches deep; my daughter’s crib was about 4 1/2 feet high. This size gave her plenty of room, since she was quite small. The ones my siblings and I used were a fair bit larger; a standard full-size crib mattress in the USA is 28 inches by 52 inches.

All of these boxes were technically quite simple — you could get elaborate if you wanted to, but it’s definitely not necessary. The light bulbs are the heat source; I think we used 40 watt bulbs in my daughter’s box.

Standing in a Skinner BoxOur thermostats (and later, my daughter’s) were sold for use in chick brooders; if you don’t happen to live either in a time warp or a rural area, you can probably find something just as effective at any hardware store. Our childhood boxes plugged into ordinary outlets; my daughter’s electricals were hard-wired, just the way you’d install a bathroom fan or light fixture.

Our mattresses were composed of a rectangular frame which was supported by the ledge. A canvas pocket (like a large pillowcase) slipped over the frame, and was removed for washing.

Image of a Skinner Air Crib with ToysA modern mesh fabric made my daughter’s mattress much easier to use than the ones from my childhood — it was laced across the underside of a frame made of conduit pipe. PVC pipe could work, too, but would probably require wooden dowels inside for reinforcement.

To make the mattress, I finished the edges of the mesh with a binding tape and grommets along all sides. On the ‘wrong’ side, the fabric wrapped around about 25% of the area of the mattress on the each side. (You can just barely make out the shadows of the edges in the image above left.) Having two would be most convenient.

The shelves above and below the light bulbs were a metal screen (ours) or perforated metal (my daughter’s). The shallow evaporation pans for all three of these boxes were ordinary baking pans. (Four, brownie-sized — 9 inches by 9 — in my daughter’s case.)

Screens on either end of the lower part of our childhood cribs allowed for air flow, and there was a fan above to circulate it. My daughter’s was designed so that air flowed up from below; a fan was installed in the ceiling.

Image of a Skinner Air Crib with a CurtainThe air cribs from my childhood were light enough that they were moved around the room occasionally. I think one of Deborah Skinner’s boxes had wheels or casters beneath it — a better plan, especially if you want to move yours from one room to another. Our boxes had simple curtain rods at the top, and lightweight curtains to pull across the front so that anyone moving around the room didn’t catch the baby’s eye when said baby was better off sleeping. Deborah’s had a pull-down shade.

Maintenance was pretty straightforward. Rinse, wash or scrub the mattress as needed and check the water in the evaporation pans. The water is what controls the humidity; you’ll want to keep an eye on it.

Other tips and notes:

Air-conditioning was not a consideration where we lived (southern Michigan before global warming; rural northern Michigan later), though I do think I recall my parents putting ice cubes in the evaporation pans during one hot summer. In more extreme climates, it might be necessary to make some more formal provision for cooling the air crib.

If you use a wheelchair, you’d probably want to shift things around a bit so that you’re slipping the chair right under the center of the mattress. In that case, you’d end up with the internal bits on either side of the wheelchair access, rather than placed all the way across the box beneath the mattress.

Image of Appliqued Ceiling Cover for a Skinner Air CribI added a toy bar at one end of my daughter’s crib, with a rather nice little music box which she loved to play (pictures above) — and this appliqued ‘sky’ to the ceiling.

Previously: A Better Baby Crib for Parents Who Use Wheelchairs

12 Responses to “Building a Skinner Air Crib”


  • This is very, very cool! I read both posts then headed over to Daddytype. It certainly makes me wish I’d had one when I was a kid. It almost (but not quite) makes me wish I’d had kids, just so I could watch what appears to be their uninhibited play and sleep in such an environment. It also makes me think about adults who are put in crib-like beds in hospitals and nursing homes…wouldn’t an adult adaptation of this be a better idea?
    I vaguely remember reading about Skinner Boxes in a few of those introductory psych classes in college…I didn’t pay much attention. I think the problem was, the idea wasn’t presented like this.
    Good show, Marty!

  • Thank you! FYI, “Skinner Box” usually refers to the experimental boxes that rats go in–levers and shock pads and so on. I wouldn’t bring it up, except that if you tell people that you’re putting your kid in a Skinner box they’ll look at you kind of funny.

    The easiest place nowadays to get this type of thermostat is probably a store that caters to reptile owners. We have a similar set-up (temperature-control-wise) for our boa constrictor.

  • Thanna — you’re quite right about “Skinner box” referring to the boxes used for lab tests. It’s probably smarter to call the Baby Box an Air Crib, but for those of us who were in on the joke, “Baby Box” just seemed to be the right name.

    For the record, though, our boxes had nothing to do with behavioral experimentation — they were just a great place to sleep and to play (briefly) before sleep.

    Great suggestion for the thermostat!

    Gail Rae — Your suggestion about nursing homes and hospitals is really interesting. Anyone who’s ever been hospitalized and lived to tell the tale probably has vivid memories about the terrible linens and how difficult it is to keep either warm or cool enough while in a hospital bed.

    I wonder how much kinder a soft mesh would be on skin, too, and if it would reduce bed sores. I have to suspect that the air circulation through the mattress would be a real plus.

    An Air-Crib-like hospital bed might be hard to sell on an emotional basis, but practically speaking, there might be lots to recommend the idea.

    Thank you both for your comments.

  • It would be absolutely perfect for my grandmother, if the idea could be adapted to a small (5 foot maybe) elderly woman with alzhiemers and bad back problems. She is always either too hot or too cold and isnt getting the sleep she needs. Will there ever be sketches? I learn best with pictures AND instructions, helps me sort it out better. Thanks again for the instructions!

  • Hi, Michelle — I don’t see why it couldn’t be adapted for an adult. One change I’d make would be to reduce the mattress height so that it is optimized for easier entry and exit. With a baby, you really want it at waist height, but for an adult, you’d want feet to touch the ground easily.

    An attentive care-giver would be essential — but, presumably, already is! And you’d want to do careful testing for weight, etc. — even a small adult is considerably larger than the average under-3 baby.

    Sketches? Maybe one day, but I’m afraid that’s not in the cards right now for me. I keep hoping someone else who has built a Skinner Box will turn up with plans. At one time, several sets were available.

    Thanks for your comment.

  • you are nuts if you put your kid in there nuts i tell u nuts

  • Not at all — it was an absolutely wonderful thing! It was fantastic to spend all the time I would have spent on laundry with my daughter, and so neat to always greet her at eye level. When she woke up in the middle of the night, she’d become a baby gymnast, too, gleefully bouncing and exercising, and playing much more physically than she could have if she had worn sleeping bags, pjs, or bed clothes — or been covered with blankets. She was one really happy baby, and the Skinner box was definitely part of the reason she thrived and grew the way she did.

  • Hi! My husband and I are expecting our first child this fall, and one of our friends raised his kids in air cribs. We’d like to build one ourselves as well, but I’m not totally clear on some of your building instructions, specifically how the humid air travels. Is the baby basically sleeping on a soft netting that allows air flow? Thanks!

  • MWG, yes, that “mattress” is exactly that, a fabric that’s like a very soft screening. It’s laced firmly to a frame.

    We had screened openings in the lower part of the box, and a fan in an upper corner to circulate air throughout. It was actually a very simple set-up — the main thing is that you want to make sure that air flows in and out freely.

    Good luck with your plans! I’m still (25 years later) amazed and thrilled with how drudgery-free my baby’s first years were as a result of the Skinner Box. It really put the focus back on the baby, right where it belonged.

  • LOL! I second Thanna! You don’t want to put a baby in a “Skinner Box”! “Baby Box” or “Air Crib” is the proper term. Thristy rats were taught to pull a lever for water or in other experiments, shocked until they pulled the lever. I doubt you want to make the association between the two, even though they were both created by Skinner.

    Baby Box = Babies
    Skinner Box = Rats

  • I was doing some reseach for a psyc paper on B.F. Skinner & decided to google “air cribs” and came across your blog. I had never even thought about the concept fitting into today’s world but when I have kids I’m seriously thinking about making one of these. I seems like it would become a safe & familiar place for a baby or toddler to be. I think it would definitly put them at ease. Thanks for publishing your ideas!

  • garry from glasgow scotland

    i have 3 kids and a bad back and after seeing how much they hated the constrictions of a normal crib/cot i can see the advantages for us adults , but what about the instinctive nest building that most wee kids show , or do you stop using it when they are able to move about . very interesting site :)

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