This DIY cardboard amusement park was birthed over a stay-home weekend (smog in Washington due to West Coast 'climate' fires).
Credits to Chalk Academy whose DIY cardboard playground inspired my miniature amusement park small world. Also a shoutout to Remlinger Farms' Family Fun Park whose layout and design we modelled this cardboard small world after.
Back story: The Sunday before the smog, we had visited Remlinger Farms' Family Fun Park, after Busy Toddler's review of their extensive safety measures (wipe-downs after each ride, limited admission etc).
Since covid-19 pandemic started, we haven't been to any playgrounds as we're erring on the side of caution, so this trip to Remlinger's was a real treat for my toddler. Smog cancelled our plan for a repeat visit this weekend, thus... cardboard small world play to the rescue.
Benefits of this DIY Project
Open-ended small world play is beneficial in the following ways:
Sparking creativity and imagination: Pretend play allowed my toddler to create and act out stories as she guided the peg dolls around the amusement park, testing out each ride.
Language development: The play conversation allowed me to use rich vocabulary with my toddler and introduce a new range of nouns (amusement park ride names). Placement of Chinese labels also helped with print familiarisation and recognition.
Fine motor refinement: There were many actions that required delicate, deliberate and small movements like moving peg dolls up a flight of cardboard stairs.
Development of teamwork skills: The co-creation process required my toddler to be a team player helping to cut and glue cardboard, and even give inputs!
Problem-solving skills: When my toddler tested out the revolving teacup ride, she realised that her peg dolls flew off the rides easily. I asked her if she had an idea to secure the peg dolls and she said, "add seat belts." That inspired me to cut elastic rubber bands and use them as seatbelt straps for the ride.
Emotional benefits: Both the co-creation and playing experience had a positive, calming effect on us. Despite being forced to stay indoors due to the smog, we had a big, fun project to work on! This brought a sense of control and we welcomed this distraction to the world that was literally burning around us :(
Social development: During the play dialogue, we discussed social etiquette e.g. what to do in situations when there were more peg dolls than rides or there was a line for the bathroom. To my surprise, my toddler responded, "排好队, 一个接一个", quoting one of the Baby Bear Picture Books (Chinese).
排好队 (pái hǎo duì) means 'queue in an orderly manner'. 一个接一个 (yī gè jiē yī gè) means 'one after another'.
DIY Cardboard Amusement Park for Open-ended Play
I believe we took a total of 4-5 hours from start to completion to DIY this miniature cardboard amusement park. I would definitely count this as one of my most labor-intensive projects!
Making this one-in-the-world cardboard toy was truly satisfying. My toddler was really proud of herself for helping and I loved having her involved and present as I customised the details of the cardboard small world.
The play was brilliant. She was highly engrossed in the cardboard small world, directing the peg dolls throughout the amusement park and making up stories and conversations among the peg dolls.
I love how she used her experiences at Remlinger Fun Park to conceptualise the peg dolls' trip to the amusement park, such a terrific opportunity for building creativity and imagination.
As I'm raising my toddler in bilingual language learning, I used print labels in English and Chinese and initiated play dialogues in both languages. Feel free to use either, or both! Creative small world play provides rich print and oral language learning opportunities and it is natural, fun and intuitive to learn languages during play.
Materials for this DIY Project
I mainly used recyclables and common everyday items found in the house for this DIY cardboard amusement park. The materials I used include:
- 3-4x toilet paper (TP) rolls
- 1x long wrapping paper cardboard tube (or kitchen towel roll)
- 1x egg crate
- Cardboard pieces -- 1 large base, and a couple of assorted sizes
- 2x small cardboard boxes (butter packaging) for bathrooms
- Green construction paper for pretend grass
- 1x wooden skewer stick
- 8x elastic bands (from grocery packaging)
- Black marker for illustration
- Hot glue gun
- Cutting instruments like scissors and pen knife
- Hole puncher
Tour of the Cardboard Amusement Park
Here's a tour around the DIY cardboard amusement park to see the features and details upclose. I'll attempt to describe the steps I took to craft them.
There are many ways to construct, so feel free to use my method as inspiration/guidance and your own creativity to make it work better!
- Carousel Horse (旋转木马 / Xuán Zhuǎn Mù Mǎ)
I constructed the carousel horse such that it could be rotated by hand, and fits 5 peg dolls. When my toddler places the peg dolls in, we would practise one-to-one correspondence. As she spins the carousel horse, I would hum a jolly tune. I also took the opportunity to introduce her to directional terms -- clockwise (顺时针 / shùn shí zhēn) and anti-clockwise (逆时针 / nì shí zhēn).
To craft, I cut 2 circular pieces of cardboard, 1 larger and 1 smaller. In the larger piece, I cut out a circle and fitted a TP roll through. Subsequently I hot glued a TP roll to the smaller cardboard circle.
Short lengths of TP rolls were then hot glued around the large cardboard base to form the 'seats' for the peg dolls. I drew horse illustrations and glued the drawings to the 'seats'.
Finally, I cut out a circle in the main amusement park cardboard base to fit the TP roll through and cut around the bottom of the TP roll so i could fold up and flatten excess TP roll against the base.
(Optional) To raise the carousel horse above the amusement park cardboard base, place a short TP roll length beneath the carousel horse large cardboard base before pushing the TP roll through the amusement park cardboard base.
Chinese vocabulary I introduced during the play conversation with my toddler:
- Trot (慢跑 / màn pǎo)
- Gallop (奔驰 / bēn chí)
- Prance (腾跃 / téng yuè)
- Speed (速度 / sù dù)
An example of how I used the terms would be, "Don't the carousel horses look like they are jumping?" (旋转木马看起来像是在跳跃吗？/ Xuán zhuǎn mù mǎ kàn qǐ lái xiàng shì zài tiào yuè ma?)
- Revolving Teacup (旋转茶杯 / Xuán zhuǎn chá bēi)
Personally I find this an absolutely fun ride to craft (not to sit in), as it makes me giddy and I spend the teacup ride silently counting down to the time it'll stop.
To craft, cut out a 4-seater structure from an egg crate. Stick a recycled straw through the 'pillar' in the middle. Glue a teapot illustration onto the straw.
Make a small hole in the amusement park cardboard base to fit the straw through. Then, cut the straw so that you could fold and flatten its end against the cardboard base.
Use a hole puncher to make holes in each of the egg crate 'seats' and thread elastic rubber bands through. Tie secure knots in each end of the elastic rubber bands. Make the bands somewhat tight for the peg dolls to hold them in securely.
My toddler loves spinning the peg dolls around. Sometimes she does it so aggressively I wonder if it's in the name of testing the seatbelt safety :P
Chinese vocabulary I introduced:
- Spin (转动 / zhuàn dòng)
- Slowly (缓慢地 / huǎn màn de)
- Quickly (迅速地 / xùn sù de)
- Dizzy (头晕 / tóu yūn)
For advanced Chinese learners, you could also introduce the Chinese idiom 头昏眼花 (tóu hūn yǎn huā] which means feeling dizzy to the point of having blurred vision. An apt description for the motion sickness I feel on revolving teacup rides :p
- Ferris Wheel (摩天轮 / mó tiān lún)
The ferris wheel is an iconic feature of amusement parks, perhaps the most majestic (壮观 / zhuàng guān) and eye-catching (引人注目 / yǐn rén zhù mù) structure of all.
I constructed my ferris wheel using a wrapping paper cardboard tube and a round circular cardboard cut-out with wooden screws from an existing toy (Melissa and Doug Wooden Construction Set). Shortened and blunted wooden skewers or straws would be a good alternative for the wooden screws (tip: make slits so that the grooves would help the ferris wheel carriages stay in place).
The ferris wheel cardboard piece is held to the cardboard tube via a tightly-fitted straw, which can rotate but there is lots of friction and resistance to stop the cardboard from falling off. To reinforce the cardboard piece, I also hot glued a rim around the end of the straw.
You could also check out Hello, Wonderful's ferris wheel made using paper plates and plastic easter eggs.
Ferris wheel carriages were constructed from egg crate compartments, with two yarn strings threaded through holes in the egg crates to hold up each carriage.
I also added elastic rubber band safety belts for the carriages to hold the peg dolls in place when they spun around.
Chinese vocabulary I used during play:
- Spin around (旋转 / xuán zhuǎn)
- Rider (骑手 / qí shǒu)
- Revolve (转动 / zhuàn dòng)
- Make a turn (转一圈 / zhuǎn yī quān)
- Fasten seat belts (系好安全带 / xì hǎo ān quán dài)
- Admire the scenery at the top (赞赏顶端的风景 / zàn shǎng dǐng duān de fēng jǐng)
It took several rounds of fine motor practice for my toddler to complete the activity cycle smoothly -- buckle the peg dolls into the ferris wheel carriages, position the carriages onto the ferris wheel, gently rotate the ferris wheel and then help the peg dolls to disembark.
I loved seeing her level of focus and patience as she manipulated the peg dolls for this amusement ride.
- Mega Slide (巨型滑梯 / Jù xíng huá tī)
When we were at Remlinger Fun Park, this was my toddler's favourite ride in real life. Unsurprisingly, this was the ride my toddler put her peg dolls on most frequently.
To craft, I used the non-compartmentalised section of an egg crate to serve as the slide. I like that it comes with low 'walls' to prevent the peg dolls from flying off the slide when they came down. A cardboard tube is hot glued to the inclined egg crate to form the slide.
The staircase was constructed from folded cardboard and a beam was hot glued under one of the stairs to prop it up against the ground.
As the peg dolls went down the mega slide, I encouraged my toddler to do a roll call (点名 / diǎn míng), calling out the peg dolls by their colors.
We also counted the number of steps the peg dolls had to take to reach the platform, which is great one-to-one correspondence practice.
I was heartened to see how gentle and deliberate my toddler was with moving the peg dolls up the stairs as she realised that it was handmade and not as sturdy as her regular toys.
Chinese vocabulary we used during play:
- Climb the stairs (爬楼梯 / pá lóu tī)
- One step at a time (一步一步 / yī bù yī bù)
- Roll down (滚下去 / gǔn xia lai)
- Slide down (滑下去 / huá xià qù)
- Slow down (放慢速度 / fàng màn sù dù)
- Come to a stop (停下来 / tínɡ xià lái)
- Exciting (激动 / Jīdòng)
- Thrilling (刺激 / Cìjī)
- Nervous (紧张 / Jǐnzhāng)
- Pumped (兴奋 / Xīngfèn)
- red (红 / Hóng)
- orange (橙 / Chéng)
- yellow (黄 / Huáng)
- blue (深蓝 / Shēn lán)
- light blue (浅蓝 / Qiǎn lán)
- green (绿 / Lǜ)
- purple (紫 / Zǐ)
I referred to the peg dolls as 小木偶 (Xiǎo mù'ǒu). At one point, my toddler assigned the peg dolls family member roles and created stories about dads accompanying children down the mega slide. It's fascinating to see how she made the connection between her memory of sliding down with her dad to these peg dolls, and re-enacted the scene.
- Gender-specific Bathrooms
From Sagebooks 基礎漢字500, my toddler learnt the distinction between male (男 / nán) and female (女 / nǚ) bathrooms (厕所 / cè suǒ). I thought it'll be interesting to add familiar Chinese characters to the labels in this amusement park cardboard small world and true enough -- she was really excited about assigning her peg dolls gender roles and having them use the corresponding bathrooms.
The bathrooms are crafted from small butter boxes (turned inside out to hide the colorful packaging) and small doors are cut out, to the height of the peg dolls.
As I've been supporting my toddler in learning toileting, she's no stranger to Chinese terms related to toileting. These are some of the Chinese vocabulary I used during the play conversation:
- Public bathrooms (公共厕所 / ɡōnɡ ɡònɡ cè suǒ)
- Urgent (急切 / jí qiè)
- Pee (尿 / niào)
- Poop (大便 / dà biàn)
- Wash hands (洗手 / xǐ shǒu)
- Dry hands (擦干手 / cā gān shǒu)
- Flush toiletbowl (冲水 / chōnɡ shuǐ)
- Hygiene (卫生 / wèi shēng)
When my toddler invited my husband to play, he spun a story about the peg dolls feeling so dizzy from the revolving teacup rides that they rushed to the bathrooms to retch (呕吐 / ǒu tù). My reaction to the story? 哭笑不得 (kū xiào bu de).
- Picnic Area (野餐地点 / yě cān dì diǎn)
I included a picnic area, referencing our experience at Remlinger Fun Park, where there were many resting points to take a drink, eat a sandwich etc. The table is a rounded rectangular cardboard piece glued onto a short TP roll while the chair is a folded cardboard piece.
I talked about how taking a rest (休息 / xiū xi) is important to restore energy (恢复精力 / huī fù jīnɡ lì) before resuming play (继续玩 / jì xù wán).
When my toddler realised that a chair wasn't enough for the peg dolls to sit together at the table, she used problem-solving skills to bring in more chairs from her dollhouse. She also suggested bringing her felt play food over to feed the peg dolls.
Addition of natural elements like trees and grass made the amusement park look elaborate, inviting and realistic.
Play Extension Ideas
When the small world play starts to get predictable and less novel, these are some ways to renew interest:
- Expansion of the amusement park with more rides
I'm considering to include Remlinger Farms' pony rides, leveraging our animal figurines.
If you have a train set, I believe it would work well to simulate a roller-coaster ride.
- Introduce money math!
Provide opportunities for peg dolls to perform monetary transactions. Some examples include:
- Ticketing booth -- for peg dolls to purchase amusement park tickets
- Picture booths -- for peg dolls to get photos taken
- Food stalls like cotton candy and popcorn stations, a hot dog stand or an ice cream truck -- for peg dolls to buy refreshments
- Souvenir shop -- for peg dolls to buy memorabilia home
Children would enjoy this advanced level of dramatic pretend play.
If your children are into pretend play and you have time to do a craft project with them, I hope you would consider this activity and have lots of fun in the process!
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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.