CSS Layout: Flexbox

Learning Goals

  • Explain what flexbox is and why its an important tool for creating layouts
  • Explain the difference between a parent and child element, be able to identify immediate children
  • Apply Flexbox to containers in order to achieve a desired layout


Read through Intro to Layout Pre-Work document and all links provided and complete exercises provided in it. Be prepared to demonstrate your understanding of the concepts in that document when you come to this class.


  • flexbox - a layout method for laying out items in rows or columns. Items flex to fill additional space and shrink to fit into smaller spaces
  • display - a css property that sets whether an element is treated as a block or inline element and the layout used for its children, such as grid or flex
  • flex parent or flex container - Any HTML element that has been given the display: flex declaration
  • flex child or flex item - Any immediate descendants of a flex parent
  • main axis – the primary axis along which flex items are laid out. It can be horizontal or vertical, and is defined by the direction set by the flex-direction property.

Warm Up

  • With a partner, fork this codepen
  • Explore the CSS that’s already present. Without googling, what do you think :nth-child means?
  • In your CSS, add the property of “display” with a value of “flex” to the .wrapper selector. What happened? Which elements visually changed?

What is Flexbox?

Flexbox is a part of CSS that provides an efficient way to lay out, align and distribute space among items in a container. Before flexbox became popular, it was a real challenge to center elements. We would use something called float, which could behave unpredictably at times.

Parents and Children

As we start working with flexbox, a very important distinction should be pointed out. We need to be careful about the CSS rules we apply to a parent element vs. those to a child element. A parent element wraps other elements, a child is nested inside the parent.

Let’s look an some HTML to make sure we are all on the same page. Which element is the parent and which are its children?


The Answer

In the code above, the section is the parent element, the <h1> and the 3 articles are all children elements because they are directly nested inside of that section. Proper indentation is really helpful here!

What about in this block of HTML?

    <h2>Title of Article 1</h2>
    <h2>Title of Article 2</h2>
    <h2>Title of Article 3</h2>

The Answer

In the code above, we now have these h2 elements nested inside of each article. It’s important to know that h2 is not a aimmediate child of the section. It is technically a grandchild, and a child of article. The idea of immediate child is really important to understand as we work with Flexbox.

When we use Flexbox, we will make the parent elements flex containers and the children elements flex items.

graphic of parent/container graphic of child/item
(Graphics from CSS Tricks)

Partner Practice

  • Go back to your codepen from the warm up
  • Experiment adding the “justify-content” property to your .wrapper. Add the following values (one at a time), and note what changes:
    • center
    • space-around
    • space-between
  • Delete or comment out your justify-content declaration. Add the following to your .wrapper, and note what changes;:
    • flex-direction: column
    • align-items: center


Most flexbox-related properties have default values. We don’t see them in our CSS, but can know that they are being applied! These properties can always be changed by us. You’ll see some default values indicated below.

Flex Direction

Another CSS property with flexbox is flex-direction. This property takes one of four values:

  • row (default): left-to-right
  • row-reverse: opposite of row (right-to-left)
  • column: same as row but top to bottom
  • column-reverse: same as column but bottom to top

Justify Content

justify-content allows us to define the alignment of items (flex children) along the main axis, and is incredibly useful for centering elements.

  • flex-start (default): items are packed toward the start line
  • flex-end: items are packed toward to end line
  • center: items are centered along the line
  • space-between: items are evenly distributed in the line; first item is on the start line, last item on the end line
  • space-around: items are evenly distributed in the line with equal space around them
  • space-evenly: items are distributed so that the spacing between any two adjacent alignment subjects, before the first alignment subject, and after the last alignment subject is the same

flexbox parent axis

See the Pen Flexbox & justify-content by CSS-Tricks (@css-tricks) on CodePen.

The above Codepen is an example from CSS Tricks

Partner Practice

  • In your previous “Flexbox Playground” codepen, make sure the .wrapper has the following styles applied:
    • flex-direction: column
    • justify-content: center
  • What happens? Why do you think that is?

The Answer

In the section above, you should have observed that justify-content: center; had a different impact - it centered the items vertically. Since flex-direction: column; was applied, the main axis was the vertical axis. justify-content will apply it’s values to the items along the main axis.

Align Items

Just like we can control how our content sits on the main axis with justify-content, we have a tool to control how our content sits on the cross-axis.

  • stretch (default): stretch to fill the container (still respect min-width/max-width)
  • flex-start: cross-start margin edge of the items is placed on the cross-start line
  • flex-end: cross-end margin edge of the items is placed on the cross-end line
  • center: items are centered in the cross-axis
  • baseline: items are aligned such as their baselines align

flex align values

Partner Practice

  • In your previous “Flexbox Playground” codepen, make sure the .wrapper has the following styles applied:
    • align-items: center
  • Play around with and without flex-direction: column


These properties will get you far enough for now, but they’re just scratching the surface at what flex can do! If you want more, check out this extensive guide from CSS tricks.

Additional Practice


  1. Fork this repo
  2. Examine the HTML, taking note of parent and child elements
  3. Re-create the following comp using flexbox - work on making small, atomic commits! Feel free to take creative liberty on color schemes, fonts, placeholder images/logos, etc.

NOTE: The HTML has been provided for you, but you are free to make changes if needed (ie: adding divs, classnames, etc.)

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