With some imagination, empty cardboard boxes could be recycled into creative open-ended toys for toddlers. As the creator, architect and engineer, you could customise one-of-a-kind cardboard toys that best align to your toddler's needs and interests.
Why build instead of buy toys?
Mindset shift. When children are encouraged to build their own toys through their own efforts instead of buying it off the shelf, it sets in motion a mentality shift, moving children away from a culture of instant gratification to one of sustainability, DIY and originality. The result is less but more mindful and purposeful toys, which is beneficial for children's focus and learning, evidenced in expert studies.
Hands-on learning of math and science. The DIY toy making process makes for a great STEM activity -- children learn construction, engineering, product design and problem-solving in the process of creating toys from scratch.
Toys could be completely customised. Children get to input and have lots of say over the features and hardware of the cardboard toy. They could create cardboard toys with the latest innovation, for instance a DIY cash register toy that allows a QR code scanning payment mode. Existing cash register toys accept mostly just cash and credit card.
In fact, children don't even need to create replicas of what's out there. They could pioneer a product that doesn't exist yet.
Nurturing creativity. There is no right or wrong with DIY. Children could freely explore, ideate, think out of the box and create a unique end-product limited only to their imagination.
Inexpensive. DIY toys requires minimal cost and mostly repurpose recyclables like cardboard. Once cardboard toys become worn and battered, new ones could be remade easily. When outgrown, cardboard toys could also be disposed or recycled without too much of a heartache.
Children learn about environment conservation. We are our children's best role models. When we reduce, reuse and recycle resources around us, children pick up on the subliminal message of environmental preservation, which eventually influences their own habits, practices and values later in life.
10+ Open Ended Cardboard Play Ideas for Toddlers!
1. Planter box
Inspired to regrow my kitchen scraps by The Gardening Cook, I transformed a long cardboard box into a DIY indoor planter box for my toddler to grow spring onions, garlic and green bean.
I placed the kitchen scraps and green bean in recycled plastic containers which are fitted through holes in the cardboard planter box. To encourage print awareness and recognition, I labelled the planter box and plants.
The intent of this DIY indoor planter box was to introduce Montessori care of the environment to my toddler and grow her sense of responsibility. I placed the planter box at a high-visibility place -- the window -- at my toddler's play area and taught her how to tend to her plants -- dusting and watering. Cloth to wipe spills and a half-filled squeeze bottle for plant watering were made accessible to my toddler.
As the plants grew, I pointed out the visual changes of the plant's growth e.g. the plant has grown taller past the neck of the bottle or its stem is curving towards the sunlight. It was a great opportunity for my toddler to learn plant anatomy (seed, roots, stem, leaves) and the living conditions for plants to grow (water, carbon dioxide and sunlight).
2. Mini Golf
Mini golf is a great family bonding activity -- family members could take turns to play and challenge one another. I like that mini golf allows for mastery of a tool (the golf club) and works on bilateral hand use, gross motor, fine motor as well as hand-eye coordination.
This mini golf idea originated from Chalk Academy. The golf club is made from a long cardboard tube from wrapping paper taped to a shorter toilet paper roll.
I used tape to make a cross to mark out the starting point for the golf ball (typically designated by a golf tee) and made a few incisions on the tape surface to create a rough texture for the golf ball to 'sit', with the help of friction.
My toddler did a lot of trial and error learning during the mini golf game. She adjusted the positioning of the golf ball, her strength and force applied as well as the direction multiple times, exploring and discovering ways to manipulate the ball around the golf course.
I like how my toddler was observing and learning the laws of motion through this mini golf activity.
3. Cash register
A cash register toy is a fun way for children to learn counting and money skills, as well as the function of money (a means for people to buy things they need or want for daily lives).
I created this DIY cash register by reusing a cardboard box with a sliding drawer. I added a cardboard panel for pressing of digits, a credit card slot, a handheld barcode scanner and a wireless payment device.
In the sliding drawer, I made compartments for my toddler to match differently sized coins to. The coins are chocolate coins leftover from Chinese New Year celebration.
I placed clear tape over the digit panel so my toddler could use washable markers to write numbers in it if she desires.
I also placed velcro dot stickers on the handheld barcode scanner and wireless payment device for attachment to the cash register's main body. This prevents them from getting misplaced.
I included a matching element to the activity and labelled coins with Chinese characters to reinforce print learning.
4. Cleaning Caddy
My toddler follows me around and watches with great interest as I vacuum the floor, wipe down tables and clean the windows. I engage her in simple practical life activities that allow her to help tidy and clean our home.
To make this cleaning caddy, I inserted a long kitchen towel cardboard tube into the handles of a square cardboard box to form the handle. This idea originated from Crafts Unleashed.
In the caddy, I typically place a half-filled squeeze bottle, small towel, wet wipes, sponge etc. It is placed beside my toddler's swiffer (adjusted to her height) in a 'cleaning corner' of my home.
These cleaning tools are made accessible so my toddler could initiate cleaning on her own or fetch these tools to help out when I do home cleaning.
Through these practical life home activities, my toddler has developed a sense of order, independently putting things back to where they belong after use more frequently. She is also more aware of the state of her surroundings. For instance, she would communicate to me that "the table is dirty" when she sees marker stains and bring over the cleaning caddy to find the right tool for cleaning.
5. Rocking Baby Crib
My toddler entered the phase of symbolic play and has started to play with dolls as if they are "real". She enjoys feeding them, diapering them and putting them to bed. I love how she pretends to be Mommy or Daddy when it comes to caring for her baby doll.
I also included a hanging toy mobile for my toddler to learn shapes and Chinese print characters.
To follow this interest in pretend play, I made a rocking baby crib for my toddler to tuck her dolls into bed. I repurposed a big shoebox for the bed and made rocker legs beneath that were taped in place with a kitchen towel cardboard tube. Craft Collective has a simpler execution for a rockable cardboard baby crib.
Through doll pretend play, my toddler could model a family, reinforcing her knowledge of the role played by each family member. This is her showing a positive family structure in her play, expressing what she knew about being loved deeply as a child in the family.
6. Gingerbread Man House
A play house allows children to model what they see in their everyday life, reinforcing their concept of a home and family structure. Children playing house is learning to prepare for adulthood in a fun and imaginative manner.
I constructed my play house when it was nearing Christmas, so I gave it a gingerbread theme. The cool thing about play houses is that it could be easily modified into gingerbread man houses, barn houses, a weather station, a sales booth etc. Chalk Academy has an execution for a Chinese Lunar New Year market.
Steps to creating a play house:
- Source a massive cardboard box (Ideally taller than toddler height so your child doesn't have to stoop low when exploring the inside of the box. If you know of neighbors who just moved in, they usually have giant moving boxes to give away)
- Cut 2 flaps off the top of the box and use remaining 2 flaps to make a triangular roof. Secure the roof with tape.
- Include fun features for the house such as the following:
1) Big main door: Cut out a big door but leave one of the sides intact for the "hinge". You might like to cut a little flap as a door handle for your toddler to grip.
2) Small door keyhole: Cut out a tiny keyhole in the main door and construct a little cardboard key for your toddler to insert into the keyhole. I cut out a key from one of the flashcards my toddler had outgrown.
3) Openable windows: Perfect for spying when in the house and peekaboo games with whoever's outside the house.
4) Mailbox: For posting letters to the occupant of the house.
5) Big backdoor: I included a big backdoor so my toddler can scoot in and out from all sides easily. When many children are playing, little ones don't get "trapped" in the cardboard house.
The interactive elements of the house teach cause and effect and children develop imagination and decision-making by playing house in various ways. Gross and fine motor skills are also worked on as children manipulate the house to suit their play.
After learning about land vehicles, my toddler had moved on to underwater vehicles. I introduced the submarine and submersible to her, using the Super Submarines. The last page has a picture dictionary identifying submarine parts.
I also illustrated an elaborate control panel for Chinese print learning and to dial up my toddler's pretend play as a submarine crew. The control panels were taped to the bottom and walls of the submarine.
The submarine was made from two boxes, the smaller box stacked above the bigger one. The bottom box's flaps on the sides were removed to enable easy crawling in and through. Windows were included for my toddler to glimpse the 'ocean' outside while in her submarine. I constructed a periscope from toilet paper cardboard tubes.
I used the opportunity to introduce her to deepwater sea creatures, which we pretend to see during our submarine excursions. National Geographic Readers: Ocean Animal Collection and Nerdy Babies: Ocean are great resource books to help my toddler understand aquatic animals and their habitats in the ocean.
First 100 Trucks and Noisy Trucks touch and feel sound book are great books for learning about the different trucks on the road and the role of truck drivers in the community. A cardboard truck toy has long play mileage as it could be easily modified into all sorts of different trucks -- delivery truck, tow truck, food truck etc.
These are the fun interactive features I included in my cardboard truck.
Steering wheel, a horn and ignition key: Constructed from cardboard scraps, colored construction paper and a egg crate.
Side mirrors: Made from egg carton cover with aluminium foil taped over it.
Openable doors: I taped the door edges with painter's tape for a smooth finish.
9. Space Rocket
My toddler started learning about space through these books -- Nerdy Babies: Space, Roaring Rockets and Spaceships and Rockets. I constructed a spacetacular rocket outfit for her for pretend play as an astronaut.
Steps to creating a child-sized cardboard rocket outfit:
- Cut out middle section of the cardboard box to fit child's torso size
- Stick flaps of the cardboard box to form a pointy head for the spaceship
- Decorate cardboard rocket by painting its body white and placing the NASA logo
- Wrap wings of spaceship in aluminium foil
- Craft rocket engines: Wrap an empty plastic bottle in alumnium foil. Tape orange, red and yellow crepe paper to the bottle neck.
Tips for wearability: Use penknife to cut holes into cardboard and loop ribbons through the holes and secure with tight knot. These parallel ribbons should not be placed too far apart so they sit nicely on toddler's small shoulders and don't slip off quickly. Also sit rocket at child's hip waist to hip area to gauge lengths of ribbons required before securing them onto the cardboard.
This cardboard rocket outfit could even become a halloween family costume, with adults wearing rocket backpacks.
10. Life-size Sleigh
Children with a trajectory schema enjoy movement (they like to move themselves and to be moved). A sleigh that could be pushed around the house is great toy for them to experiment with movement.
It was nearing Christmas when I made this life-sized sleigh for my toddler, so I gave it a Santa theme.
Steps to creating this life-sized sleigh:
- Open up the sides of a large open-top cardboard box (Costco fruit box is ideal) and secure them with masking tape.
- Create a seat with a smaller cardboard box taped to the bottom of the large cardboard box
- (Optiona) Secure a Santa drawing to the side of the large cardboard box.
Older siblings would enjoy pushing younger ones around. For only children, they would enjoy being pushed or pushing lovey passengers in Santa's favorite mode of transportation.
Use of rich vocabulary to describe the thrill of the sleigh ride boosts language development.
I hope you are inspired to keep your cardboard boxes to create cardboard magic and fun with your children!
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Hi! I am Yunnie. I am the newly minted mama to a little baby girl and a mum friend to everyone on this special (and many times scary) journey of motherhood. Also a graduated bride with a penchant for weddings.