Play Stuff Blog

Sturdily Built: The Playful Longevity of the Cardboard Box.  

Cardboard box From time to time, my colleagues and I catch a little flack for those “non-traditional” toys that have been nominated or inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame here at The Strong. This includes the stick (inducted in 2008), Bubble Wrap (nominated in 2016), the blanket (inducted in 2011) and of course, the cardboard box (inducted in 2005.) After the stick, I’d wager the cardboard box raises the most eyebrows—although after looking at it a bit more closely many may wonder why it wasn’t inducted sooner.

Somewhere in my parents’ home exists a slightly yellowed and creased photo of my brother on Christmas morning in the 1970s when he received a Sesame Street Little People playset. Rather than depicting his ecstatic face, the picture shows two small legs sticking out of the manufacturer’s box, clad in blue footie pajamas. While the playset brought hours of joy to the three kids in our household, it’s the photograph that continues to make me smile more than 30 years later. My brother now has children of his own and, perhaps not so coincidently, one of them loved nothing more as a tiny toddler than riding in an old diaper box as his parents dragged it round the house.

Riding in a repurposed diaper box So what is it about a cardboard box that draws us in? Is it the endless possibility of what the box could be? Is it because when you are a small child in this big world a cardboard box seems like an appropriately sized place to hang out? Is it because the idea of crawling into a box seems funny and unexpected? The answer to these questions is yes, although the rationale probably differs a bit depending on who you ask. Even the iconic comedian Jerry Seinfeld had a short bit about boxes, incorporated into an episode of his long-running 1990s television sitcom.

Playing in the GE Refrigerator Box, photograph, about 1970 My endlessly creative seven-year-old stepdaughter, Katie, is smitten with any empty box that turns up in our house, ranging from small shoe boxes to large boxes that contain do-it-yourself home furnishings. Recently, she gushed over one such large box saying, “I can’t imagine someone looking at that big empty box and not wanting to make a school out of it,” which is exactly what she did with the help of markers, construction paper, and all the tape in our house. Admittedly, her room is starting to look a bit like a local recycling center and we’ll run out space soon, but for now she spends hours happily arranging things and creating storylines for the doll and animal occupants of her boxes and I never tire of seeing where her imagination takes her.

Katie is far from the first person to repurpose boxes as means of creative expression and she certainly won’t be the last. A market has even emerged for commercially produced cardboard kits, further encouraging this type of imaginative play—already a popular activity for generations, as documented in numerous photos in The Strong’s collection. The kits can be used to create all sorts of structures and objects, ranging from a clubhouse to a spaceship and may be customized with markers, stickers, and more. Old or new, it seems the humble cardboard box is here to stay and will continue to entertain and delight kids and grownups alike. I think that’s impressive staying power for something so simple in an age of ever-changing technology, screens, and instant gratification.

To all the skeptics, I’d encourage you to take another look and think outside—or inside—of that unassuming brown box in your recycling bin—metaphorically and perhaps literally, depending on what your latest project is.