When Rob and I were still dating, I remember sitting next to the fire at Christmas with his family, watching all of his nephews and his niece open the gifts. Within five minutes, all of the gifts had been discarded and the kids were playing in the cardboard boxes. Rob turned to me and said, “Note to self: forget presents in favor of cardboard box activities.”
More than ten years later, I found some great deals in Target on furniture for our newly renovated kitchen. I saved two of the big boxes for when Rob was out of town and each day we tried new activities. There is no end to what you can do with a big box and an imagination! Keep in mind that with these, my boys are ages 3 and 5.
We started out the week with the boxes fully together but open. You can choose to open the box in a certain way, or tape them and re-open as you see fit. But in this stage, you really aren’t doing anything to adapt the box.
Activity 1: Play with Box
The very first time you hand a child a box, you don’t NEED an activity. Watch what happens. Your child will create a whole world from that box that may or may not involve a sibling or you. My boys loved hiding in the box and pretending to be ninjas/superheros/animals. This probably looks different for each child and in each household. Starting without any instructions gives your child a great chance to just enjoy and be creative!
Activity 2: Play Inside with Toys
I opened these boxes sideways (taping shut the ends I had opened to retrieve the furniture) and gave each boy a box filled with Lego pieces. This kept them occupied for maybe 2 hours. Sometimes they played with the lid open, sometimes shut. Somehow playing with their normal toys inside of a box was a novel thing.
Activity 3: Sleep in the Box
Depending on your nighttime schedule, this may not work, but my boys loved getting to sleep outside of their beds in a new place. I lined the bottom of each box with a sheet, gave them pillows, blankets, and their normal stuffed animals, and let them sleep in the floor. The boxes lasted for almost a week of bedtimes and there were protests when it was time to move to stage two of cardboard box activities.
In this stage I flattened the box. They were already sort of sagging or falling apart from sleeping, so this wasn’t any big deal.
Activity 4: Create a World
For my boys, this was as simple as me drawing a few lines for roads and giving them cars. You could make a map with homes and roads and playgrounds and lakes, or just see what your kids might want to create on their own. Sawyer made a Sharknado. Clearly, culture is rubbing off on him. After making the roads, they bent the edges of their boxes for ramps and mountains.
Activity 5: Create Art
Turn your box over, take the boxes outside, and give your children paint, markers, or crayons to go hog-wild. My boxes had photos on one side, so I needed to whitewash the boxes first with a bit of cheap white craft paint so the boys could have a blank slate. It’s amazing to see what your kids can create with a bigger canvas than a piece of paper!
Activity 6: Make a Fort
Fold your box into a fitting shape and cover with a sheet to make a fort. We kept the forts up for two days in my TV room while I resisted the urge to clean. The boys played all kinds of games inside their forts, and we built several different forts out of the same boxes.
Activity 7: Drive-in Movie
Create a space with an opening toward your TV, fill it with pillows, and put on a movie. We were able to slightly repurpose the fort for this. My boys had a blast watching movies inside the box!
For this stage, I pulled out scissors and a miracle blade to cut up the boxes. The miracle blade bread knife was the best cutting tool. It’s a wonder I still have my fingers.
Activity 8: Building Blocks
I cut the boxes into square shapes and gave each one notch per side. This meant the boxes could slide into one another and become building blocks. This would be a better activity for older kids, as my boys wanted to build, but it required a bit more dexterity. (In other words, I mostly had to build their towers.) I would also suggest cutting up some smaller blocks with no notches to form connecting pieces. I think this would be great for older kids. After my boys got the hang of it, they were better, but the cardboard can’t take too much of a heavy hand.
Activity 9: Stepping Stones
The boys actually invented this one. They spread the building blocks I’d cut all across the house and created a sort of walkway/Olympic event course where they had to jump from block to block. The ground was hot lava and the pieces were the only way across. This was great because they built the tracks and they recreated them. No Mom help necessary!
Activity 10: Recycle
This is a great chance to teach your kids about recycling and being good stewards. If you have a bin, you can put them there. If not, take a field trip to a local recycling place and deposit what’s left of your boxes. Your kids may fight to keep them, but at this point, they are probably about to disintegrate.
Other ideas I had (but got too sick of the boxes to implement): making race cars or space ships, taking them outside in fully box form to jump over, extending the hot lava game so that the kids start in one place with a handful of squares and must use them to create a bridge from one area to another, cutting out swords or shields or cardboard animals (definitely would have lost a finger).