Back in the day, when complex toys were less abundant and more expensive, kids were forced to operate with a hunter-gatherer mentality. Things like wall paper samples, old jars and cardboard boxes formed the heart of play, whether for pretend time, an enterprising kid business (i.e. a lemonade stand) or simply for making fun stuff. As the economy of play has changed with the world economy, toys of all sorts are easily and cheaply pumped out and it has taken a toll on children’s imaginations. Toy manufacturers even tried to usurp the good-old cardboard concept by making toys out of this DIY material. Doll houses, playhouses, blocks and cityscapes made out of cardboard by someone else can all be had for a pretty penny.
I had been feeling pretty gloomy about this new brave world of toys. Then we ordered a new dishwasher, and it came in a huge cardboard box.
My then 18-month-old daughter was mesmerized and I was inspired. So, I got out the X-Acto knife and carved windows and doors and created an angled roof held together by duct tape. My daughter was thrilled with this new playhouse as-is, but I wanted to take it a step further. I gathered scraps of wrapping paper and some wheat paste, and we started adding “siding.” Next came paint and markers to really liven things up. And of course the interior décor, again with wrapping paper and paint and a piece of cardboard taped to the box for flooring.
This was an ongoing project that spanned probably a year with on-and-off amusement provided for both me and my daughter. We were also doing work on our own home at the same time, so she liked the idea of participating in her own home-improvement project. I think I enjoyed the art in progress, but she enjoyed just playing in the house. We also employed it as an occasional puppet theater. But like any toy, and especially any large plaything, we eventually sent it to the toy graveyard. Luckily, its graveyard was the recycle bin, not the land fill.
Not too long after that, we had to buy a new water heater. The box it came in was perfect for a mini condo tower. For this one, we opted for a minimal look with no décor. Come to think of it, this one did not even have a floor. That got a lot of play as a mini playhouse that only our daughter could fit in, and it doubled as a great hiding spot during hide and seek or a walking condo costume if I got into it and stood up.
Kids often need no help from grownups to come up with ingenious uses for cardboard. My daughter recently decided that large perforated sheets of cardboard could be fashioned into her personal airport/dressing room. Don’t we all need an airport that doubles as a dressing room?
But for those days when you need a little inspiration, here are a few other ideas to get you started:
- String together cardboard shapes to make a mobile.
- Take a medium shipment box, turn it on its side, remove the flaps and make a small puppet theater. You can add a curtain by running a rod into one end and out the other.
- Smaller cardboard boxes work well as buildings for a small town. Your child can paint or color them or glue images on the front to make the appropriate business front. This is a lot cheaper than buying a bunch of Calico Critters structures.
- Turn a large box into a funnel shaped space pod. Also doubles as a volcano.
- With the right size box, you can fashion a play kitchen or even just play kitchen modules. Use one box for the stove (electrical tape works great to fashion burners), one box for the sink (a couple of paper towel rolls come in handy for a faucet) and one for the fridge.
- For the craftier family, perforate and fold cardboard sheets into doll furniture. Hold together with tape, glue or punch holes and string together.
However you and your child decide to utilize your free DIY play material, just remember, there is no BORED in cardboard. Oh, and please recycle!