After tracking down the perfect toy only to see the kid abandon it to play with the box instead, what parent hasn’t thought: Why didn’t we just give them the boxes instead?
If you have, you’re not alone. One in seven parents report their kids played longer with Christmas present packaging than the toys inside, according to the 2012 Ribena Plus Play Report.
The cardboard box is such a popular children’s toy that it was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2005. Generations of children have turned cardboard boxes into dollhouses, spaceships, puppet stages, robot bodies, and more.
Also, kids love anything that's part of the adult world that they can transform themselves, said Asia Citro, a parent and author of “150+ Screen Free Activities For Kids.” Many of the ideas in her book involve recycling everyday materials into toys. “They get to play with something that isn’t necessarily set out for them,” said Citro.
That way, kids get to use their creativity and feel proud of the thing they made.
When Citro and her preschool-aged daughter made Halloween butterfly wings out of cardboard, her daughter not only loved painting the wings but also telling people that she had created the costume.
“She was in preschool and she said, ‘I made these,'” said Citro.
But cardboard boxes aren’t just for preschoolers. In 2011, filmmaker Nirvan Mullick discovered a 9-year-old boy who had made a working arcade out of cardboard boxes in his dad’s garage in East Los Angeles. Mullick arranged for a surprise flash mob of hundreds to show up and spend an afternoon playing Caine’s games.
“I think there’s something about a cardboard box that captures kids’ imaginations,” Mullick said. “You can build anything out of it and turn it into anything. It’s way more exciting than whatever came in the box.”
Caine Monroy agrees. “I imagine what I want to build and I build it,” he said.
Caine was able to build his cardboard arcade because he had three magic ingredients: materials, space, and time.
So perhaps, child experts say, instead of wrapping up the Nerf N-Strike Elite Demolisher 2-in-1 Blaster or the $349 Razor Crazy Kart, try wrapping up a big cardboard box filled with markers, safety scissors, ribbons, stickers, and other supplies.
Or have Santa give kids a stack of cardboard and a book of kid-friendly crafts to inspire them.
Then, follow Mullick’s advice to give your children not only the freedom to play with their cardboard boxes, but also the space in which to explore and make messes.
“[Parents] used to make their kids clean up or not leave a mess,” said Mullick. But after watching Mullick’s 10-minute documentary Caine’s Arcade, he said, “they decided to just let them go a little bit and have some space to be a kid and be creative.”