Print this page When the Packaging Becomes the Toy

You can spend lots of hours and dollars getting the perfect toy for that favorite child in your life, hoping for the right combination of developmental appropriateness and joyful fun. And then what happens? The box, not the toy itself, turns out to be the star of the show.

It can be both puzzling and fascinating to watch a child “make” a toy out of seemingly ordinary objects and play for hours. Why is she so interested in the tub that the alphabet magnets came in, rather than the magnetic letters themselves? Why has that huge refrigerator box taken over our living room?

Relax. As long as you are sure it’s completely safe, there is no need to discourage kids from finding the play in a “toy” that was never intended to be one. Kids are endlessly creative, and the box gives a child the room to exercise his imagination.

That’s why the National Toy Hall of Fame recently inducted The Cardboard Box to take its place among iconic childhood playthings like crayons, marbles, puzzles, and alphabet blocks. “Over the years, children sensed the possibilities inherent in cardboard boxes,” notes the Toy Hall of Fame. “Small boxes take on alternate roles as dollhouse furniture. Wheels drawn on the side turn a box into a car. Really large boxes—from washers, stoves, big-screen TVs, or refrigerators—can offer children even greater opportunity for creativity. Inside a big cardboard box, a child is transported to a world of his or her own, one where anything is possible.”[1]

What’s so great about boxes is that they are a “blank slate” type of toy. The play in so many of today’s toys is pre-engineered for children. Characters’ personalities have been developed already on TV, or a chip imbedded in the toy directs the play, or the ‘rules’ for using the toy leave little for the child to imagine. Boxes let kids make it up themselves.

Here are some quick and easy ideas for parents to redeploy those cardboard boxes around the house…and encourage their child’s creativity at the same time:

  • Box houses.. Collect up large boxes of different sizes, grab some packing tape and some art supplies, and you are on your way to creating what may become one of your child’s favorite playthings. Depending on the space you have available (and the weather forecast!), cardboard box houses can be built indoors or in the back yard. Cut out doors and windows, tape boxes together to make separate rooms, tape fabric scraps or cut up old sheets to the windows for curtains, and let your little one decorate with paints or markers. In her own box house, your child gets to draw on the walls! (Hint: decorating and playing in a box house can be a great home birthday party activity.)

  • Box tunnels. It’s the same idea as the box house. Just think how much more fun bedtime can be if you have arrived at your bedroom door by slithering down the hall through a box tunnel you created.

  • Nesting boxes. It’s simple fun, but packed with learning. Start a box collection with boxes of different sizes. Your little one will learn important sorting and problem solving skills as she organizes the boxes by size and figures out how to put one inside the other until all the boxes are nested. Your collection can grow over time. Another fun activity is to decorate the individual boxes of your nesting set.

  • Box cars. Today’s box car children are tearing around the house inside a cardboard box that has no top or bottom. Cut handles on the sides of the box for the child to use in holding his “car” off the floor when he is “driving” it. Help him paint or draw wheels, doors, a bumper, and a grill on the car and add other personalized touches.


[1] http://www.strongmuseum.org/NTHoF/boxframeset.html, 3-20-07

Provided By Susan J. Oliver, Tropomedia
This information is provided on behalf of the toy experts at your
neighborhood toy store.


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