Not a box: Open- ended cardboard box activities

Just about every parent, auntie, uncle and friend has bought a present, watched a child tear through the wrapping paper and waited as she uncovered the gift you so thoughtfully chose for her—then scratched your head as she ignored the toy to play with the cardboard box it came in. The preference can be baffling, but it’s also enchanting: Kids can make playing with a cardboard box the highlight of their day. 

You can give a kid a box and let their imaginations run wild—and you can jumpstart the fun with these cardboard box activity prompts.

10 open-ended cardboard box activities

Why are cardboard boxes fun?

“To an adult it may be a cardboard box, but to a child it’s the world in miniature. It can be a spaceship, a sailing ship, a fast car or a den to hide in – or all of those things in under ten minutes,” says Sally Goddard Blythe, author of The Genius of the Natural Childhood, in this article on Female First.

That’s the most appealing part of a box: its potential. It becomes a conduit for a child’s imagination and encourages make-believe.

And get this: In a poll, parents said their kids prefer to play with “free play” toys like boxes over traditional toys or gadgets. No wonder it’s in the National Toy Hall of Fame.

So it’s not just your kid.

Benefits of playing inside the box

Beyond fun, why is it good for kids to dive into cardboard box activities?

Climbing into a box develops spatial awareness—a child’s understanding of a his own body, how big it is and how it fits into the world around him.

Climbing in and out requires balance, as does sitting in it like a sled and having a grown-up pull him around!

The blank slate of the cardboard sparks creativity.

Unlimited potential for play

The best thing about a cardboard box is it can be anything. No way of playing with the container your new microwave came in is wrong—and that’s very freeing.

Peeper and Kiwi are no strangers to the fun of cardboard boxes. They sit inside them while adults pull them around their “bumper cars.” Peeper used a giant wooden spoon as a paddle to make another one into a kayak so she could kayak just like her Grandpa Shempy. The girls loved playing in (and decorating) a giant box that held a dresser—they took turns opening and closing the door and peeking out the windows.

And of course we love the classic picture book Not a Box by Antoinette Portis. (Haven’t read it? Head to the library immediately!)

A parent’s suggestion can spark a whole day play with cardboard box activities, but I suggest you stay as open as you can: Letting your kids explore with their imaginations is way more important than their making something you can recognize—a spaceship, say, or a car. 

The best way of letting your kids play with a box is simply giving it to them and seeing what they come up with. But here are a few prompts that will bring out even more creativity in your kids!

10 open-ended ideas for cardboard box activities

  1. Place your child inside the box with a bunch of crayons—a cardboard box is an unconventional and 3D canvas!
  2. Flatten the box and see what it becomes—a giant map or a downhill-racing toboggan?
  3. Wield a serrated knife for your kids, inviting them to direct you where and what to cut.
  4. Offer to be their engine: You can push them around as they sit in their race car/submarine/dogsled.
  5. Turn the box on its side. Is it a cave? The inside of a whale’s belly?
  6. Give your kids unconventional props and see what they come up with. What does the box become if you hand them a bottle opener, a flashlight and a beach ball?
  7. Pull out a bunch of boxes. What will your kids build?
  8. Cut out head and arm holes so your child can wear the box.
  9. Give them free reign over the recycling—and a bunch of glue or tape. They may invent a robot, a fire truck or grocery store. Then throw it all back in the recycling bin when they’re done.
  10. Reseal the box with tape. It may become a medalist stand for an Olympian or a bongo drum. (Now where are those ear plugs?)

So before you throw that cardboard box in the recycling bin, why not let your kids play with it for a bit? You may be surprised by what they create.

11 thoughts on “Not a box: Open- ended cardboard box activities

  • July 5, 2016 at 9:04 pm

    My kids are 12 and 9 and they STILL love it when I get packages delivered because they love taking all of the boxes and using them for all of their crazy creations! I love it. Cardboard boxes are the best!

    • July 6, 2016 at 5:02 pm

      Haha I get excited too! It’s like, what will this box turn into today?!

    • July 6, 2016 at 5:03 pm

      The fridge box is the holy grail of cardboard boxes!

    • July 6, 2016 at 5:03 pm

      YES! Just as long as you didn’t get cholera while you were at it. 😉

  • July 6, 2016 at 9:11 pm

    I love this! Isn’t it great to see kids take ordinary items and make extrodinary things happen with them?! I love seeing them get creative and get their wheels spinning.

  • July 12, 2016 at 5:14 am

    I’m glad my kids aren’t the only ones that love to play in boxes. Great ideas.

    • July 12, 2016 at 2:07 pm

      Thanks Ashley! I’m pretty sure it’s a requirement for being a kid. 😉

  • December 14, 2016 at 2:39 am

    Wow !

    This is really a nice post and specially for the mums who are searching ideas to keep their children occupied with these types of activities.

    Used cardboard boxes for making different things for kids is a eco-friendly way .

    You can also use boxes and sticking them together with packaging tape. Make the top box with an opening and hang with a curtain. (You can use one of rags from the rag box for this.)

    Help the kids making finger puppets from paper and creating a “show” with a script and characters.

    Hope this will help you out! 🙂

    keep doing good work.

    Blessings to you.

    • December 14, 2016 at 5:59 am

      Yes! Boxes are absolutely infinite in their possibilities! I haven’t tried a puppet show with a box—great idea! I’ll do that next time we get a package. 🙂


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