For decades, cardboard boxes have been inspiring creativity in youngsters.
I recall a summer day in maybe 1978 when, after playing house in a huge cast-off refrigerator packing box in my backyard for hours, my friend Adrienne and I sallied forth — inside the box, with small viewing holes cut in the side — to take on the neighbourhood. We got a good number of stares and laughs as we circled our block, and got a bit of a rush when we bumped into another friend, who didn't recognize us, and chased her down the street for a bit before collapsing in a fit of giggles (sorry, Ellen!).
Today, along with the proliferation of DIY ideas for cardboard boxes in the blogosphere, the Internet marketplace offers hundreds of premade creations for kids. Perhaps it's our 21st-century consciousness about reducing, reusing and recycling, or just the ready availability of cardboard boxes (find them when you're bulk-buying at Costco, in the bins at the front of a No Frills supermarket, the local liquor store or recycle the jumbo boxes your diapers and Internet deliveries come in).
For the simplest of DIYs, add a playful modern spin to the standard cardboard-box house with neon washi or masking tape. The first ones above were built for a children's birthday party by Eunice and Sabrina Moyle of HelloLucky. The second houses, from the Adventures in Pinksugarland blog, couldn't be easier to make and have been road-tested for all ages!
Years ago, when our children were just turning one, my friend Elaine wowed me when she built her son Anderson a play kitchen out of two cardboard boxes and a few other basic household supplies like aluminum pie plates, paper towel rolls, etc. Indeed, toddlers young and old seem to love play kitchens, and this is surely an easy way to give them one without reaching for your credit card. Here's a fun example from Parents magazine.
Once you've mastered the play kitchen, expand your borders with other "dramatic play" options, like a homemade mailbox or boat. (Get full details on the mailbox and accoutrements on the Ikat Bag blog.)
The lowly cardboard box has long been co-opted as an instant child-sized car. Idaho mom and photographer Andi Marshall took that idea one step further by hosting a Drive-in-movie-themed birthday party with personalized cars for each of the guests, complete with sidecars to hold snacks.
Some of the best cardboard creations I've seen come from Cardboard Dad, a.k.a. Moscow-based architect and father Evgeny Kudryavtsev. He crafts brilliant toys and structures for his daughter, Irina, and shares them on his site Play and Grow. For example, he transformed a diaper box into this princess chair and built a slide of cardboard and electrical tape.
I love the idea, at least with younger kids, of creating a birthday tree like this one from The Imagination Tree. Start with a simple cardboard tree shape, add a perpendicular support piece, then let the kids have at it decorating with scraps of wrapping paper, coloured paper or fabrics. Bring it out for family birthdays during the year — and redecorate when the fancy strikes!
For young architects-in-training, turn a few sturdy boxes into simple, reusable cardboard building boards like these ones from the Tutus & Tea Parties blog. Or crack open bigger boxes and let kids create towns with roads, houses, shops and farms, as Australian mom Kate did on her Picklebums blog.
Or just give kids a box and let them dream up their own designs. My daughter Tessa, who's seven, came across a large shipping box the other day at our house, and left to her own devices, crafted the "Rainbow Puppet Theatre" complete with sock puppets.
If your craft skills are rusty or you're pressed for time, look to U.S. company Lille Huset for charming cardboard dollhouses in a range of styles. Creator Alyson Beaton seeks inspiration for her models all over North America and Europe, from Brooklyn to Chicago to London.
Kol Kid in Toronto has the clever Find and Make dollhouse kit by Makedo, which includes the tools and fasteners for making a variety of dollhouses, but leaves the child to find/recycle cardboard from home. Modular design at its best!
Ikea has a darling market stand (for the wallet-friendly price of $13).
For kids (or parents) who lean toward modern architecture with designer cred, check out Villa Julia, the cardboard playhouse designed for Italian furniture maker Magis by Javier Mariscal. Fans of picturesque architecture, on the other hand, will gravitate to more whimsical designs, like My Very Own Cottage, which is available through Mastermind Toys or Amazon. Preprinted with details like roofing, doors and trees, this sort of cardboard design will appeal to some kids and parents — but may ultimately feel like a damper on freewheeling creativity to others.
And last, but definitely not least, check out this incredible pop-up cardboard play area for kids designed by Israeli product designer Liya Mairson. Fold open the small-space-friendly piece to encourage open-ended playhouse activities — and simply fold it down and tuck it in a closet or corner when playtime's done.
Play areas feeling cluttered? Learn tips on Organizing Kids' Work & Play Spaces in our photo gallery.
1. Modern Kids Co. for HelloLucky, via 100 Layer Cake-Let blog
2. Adventures in Pinksugarland blog
3. Parents magazine, photography by Alexandra Grablewski
4a. Ikat Bag blog
5. Small Fry blog, photography by Cindy Worwood
6. Play and Grow blog
7. The Imagination Tree
8a. Tutus & Tea Parties blog
8b. Picklebums blog
9. Katie Hayden
10. Lille Huset
11. Kol Kid
13. Skylta market stand, Ikea
14c. My Very Own Cottage, Amazon
15a. Rocket, PaperPod
15b. Igloo, PaperPod
16. Liya Mairson