Monday, July 28, 2008

What's In A Box?

Behold the humble cardboard box - our house is full of these,
and today I am taking a break from sewing to extol its virtues
as a craft medium.

Emily loves playing post office. After a trip to the Children's
Museum a couple of years ago, she wanted to recreate the
experience of sorting and delivering letters. Over the ensuing
months, we collected various accessories (scroll down) to
help her do just that - a small mail bag, re-used envelopes,
square stickers for stamps, rectangular stickers for address labels,
and a random coat or two for her uniform. This weekend, watching
her and Jenna make a multitude of letters, an idea formed in my head
that I couldn't get out. So while they were napping, I found a large
cardboard box that once contained diapers and made this mailbox

The girls were thrilled - Jenna mostly because it was
something else in she could use her markers on.

We also collected all the floating stationery into a sort
of mail kit: a box of envelopes, hand-drawn postcards,
and plain white labels of different sizes for home-made
address labels (just names for now) and colorful stamps.
They prefer to enclose entire drawings in their envelopes
to text, which is just as well since no one can read
their letters anyway.

and after these letters are put into the mailbox, collected and
sorted, they go (theoretically) into individual mailboxes like these:

These were made last year, when Jenna was a bald baby
and Kate wasn't yet born. We used whichever flat boxes
were lying around in the house at the time - Kleenex boxes
and muffin mix boxes, for instance - and wrapped them with tissue
paper, because I hadn't gotten round to buying construction paper
then. Adding faces made it easier for Emily to identify family
members. Eventually we will add Kate's face and change Jenna's
to avoid mixing up the babies. I later found another mailbox
design here which was faster to make. Smart.

And here's a cardboard mailbox with a flag of the sort
we have for our house. This was our maildrop for a long time,
so Emily would put all her stamped envelopes here to be picked
up by the "mailman". Now with the new mailbox made this
weekend, this one might be out of a job.

The possibilities are endless, really, with cardboard boxes.
You make them, the kids play with them, and when they
outgrow them or they disintegrate, you throw them away.
Here's a collection of things that I made in response to the girls'
different pretend-play themes over the few years we've lived here.

Small kennel made out of a diaper wipes box.

Guitar made of miscellaneous cardboard and rubber bands.
We had just moved into our house and my real guitar was
being shipped with our other possessions. One of Emily's (then 1)
first words was "guitar". With all the cardboard lying around
after moving and time on my hands in the winter, I made the
first of the cardboard toys. Sadly, this guitar eventually
fell apart so we threw it away.

. The mast is a PVC pipe - we thought it was probably sturdier.

. The idea came from an old issue of Family Fun magazine -
paper plates for burners, inexpensive plastic knobs from a
hardware store so they actually turn, and the inner cardboard tube
of a paper towel roll for the door handle. The design had to be
tweaked slightly to allow for heavy-duty baking - the one in
the magazine had a simpler door that stayed shut by friction
because it fit exactly in the opening. I added an inner frame
with velcro (tried magnets but they didn't work as well)
for smoother opening and closing. I couldn't find a link to the
original oven at the Family Fun site, but here's a link to their
very neat kitchen in a box.

Puppet stage
with fabric curtains sliding on an
internal wooden rod with small circular rings.
Jenna has been at it with her markers, too, decorating.

Castle, made out of a packing box for glass tumblers
from Ikea. The turrets/towers are the inner tubes of
paper towels topped with cardboard cones. The entire
thing is covered with aluminum foil except for the drawbridge.
Emily decorated it with adhesive jewels and stuck in the flags.
This was a little fancier than the other cardboard playthings
because it was the centerpiece for Emily's princess party and we
wedged a disposable baking tray inside it to hold her princess cookies.

Donut Shop/Candy Emporium/General Store,
made out of a large freezer box. I cut several windows
and a skylight in the roof to brighten the interior but we
still needed one of those push-on-push-off night lights.
Anyone know where to get a little battery-powered
kerosene/camping lantern?

There's a cardboard shelf just under the display window
for stocking jars of play candy, foam lollipops or sock donuts,
depending on whether Emily feels like selling sweets

or donuts (yes, she does deliveries, too).

Some of these toys have seen better days, surely.
Some have been decorated to death. And some, like this
donut house, is a work in progress. I recently added
the floor to give it more stability. Sometime soon I want to
have the kids paint the outside with some waterproof paint
(and markers, no doubt) . And turn, with chalkboard paint
(most craft stores will have tins of these) an area or two
(like where the donut shop sign is now) into chalkboards
for the kids to write the store name or the daily menu.
Must get to it before winter.

Hopefully this post has given you some ideas of things to do
with the humble cardboard box. The hardest part for me
is sequencing in my head - you know, determining which part
to attach or cut before which - very much like sewing, actually.
All you need are these - scissors (utility scissors work best),
craft knife/utility knife/box cutter, wide masking tape and glue.
UHU glue is my very favorite craft glue - dries clear in seconds,
will not cause bodily harm like superglue, needs no electricity
and unlike white glue, actually works.

As a child, one of my favorite things to play with was a roll
of Scotch tape, with which I'd assemble all sorts of things
around the house, including my own broken eyeglasses.
There was nothing Scotch tape couldn't fix or make.
And mum and dad liked to push their limits and make things
other people had written off as impossible or just not worth
the effort. I make stuff with cardboard now sometimes to push
my own limits, occasionally because it's easier to make something
than go scouting in stores or online for it, often because it's
daylight robbery what some places charge for similar toys in plastic,
largely for pure fun, but mostly so that the kids get used to the idea
that they can make anything if they want to.

*Edited to add this link to a much later post on more cardboard 
ideas (and links to other people's cardboard constructions)
and this even newer tutorial on How To Work With Cardboard, 
with links to 40 cardboard projects I've done since.

Updated 2019 to add: in response to many requests for instructions to make the cardboard mailchute, there is now a 2-in-1 pattern you can purchase here. Included are instructions to make that mailchute as well as a fabric mailbag for mail carrier/post office pretend play. Happy making!


  1. Kudos for recycling! and for instilling craftiness in the children too!

    You are awesome :)

    (btw, I'm on blogger now and this here is my new account)


  2. Apart from the "wow" aspect of this post, here're a couple of thoughts:

    1. Who sneakily addressed an envelope to "MOM" and put it in the mailbox? Shameless!

    2. I think the poor dog is scruffy because it has been named as such:-(

    3. That boat wasn't made at your house, was it? Unless something drastic happened since I was last there...

    4. Judging from her decorations, Jenna at least has a good concept of colors that match.

    5. Is the other freezer full of dead bodies already? When did you get a new one?

  3. Henry saw the till in Emily's shop and like a true Chinaman said: "That's good! She's teaching them about buying and selling."

    Later on, as if realizing in afterthought, he said,"Yes, those(your cardboard masterpieces) are impressive."


  4. i am totally amazed! i mean we were when we first saw the donut shop at your place. but we never got to see the rest of the stuff. we do turn cardboard boxes into stuff too but they never turn out so nice like yours. you are absolutely impressive. =)

  5. Thank you all for the nice comments!

    e: no, only copious amounts of jam in the freezer now.

    j: Henry is hilarious! Emily has 2 tills. Sadly, she hasn't quite grasped how money works - she puts donuts in a paper bag, together with some coins and a coupon and hands it to the customer, who does not give any money in exchange!

  6. WOW you've been so busy with all this box making over the years. We had a pirate ship years ago very much like your boat. I love the foil castle, the kitchen and your mailbox with the curved top is fabulous!

  7. Love, love, LOVE this post! Thanks so much for commenting on my blog so I could come discover yours! I wandered around a little, and you have so many wonderful ideas, I will be visiting frequently :)

    And yes, you are right for the ice-skater dress. I cut the dress in one piece (sleeves separately) and then inserted triangles into the skirt.

  8. I so love the big mailbox you made for the kids! And the whole mailing kit! Awesome! I only made a rather tiny one ... but I put a link to your post into my blog.

    Thanks for sharing your idea!

  9. Seriously-I cannot believe you made all that with cardboard!! If you ever have time-I'd love some simple instructions for the oven. Some of us just don't have the creativity to come up with that on our own!! :)

    Fabulous job!!

    1. yes I need to know of the stove as well, and of course the mail box, plz email me ur ideas.... I want to make things too.... and that Castle great work, I needed a mental pic of how to make a castle as we are making pinata's for a bday party... oh ya.... thnx again:)

  10. Awesomeness! I came here via thriftycraftmama and am very pleased I did! I love the mail box and have added it to my list of things to make in the future. We have a mild to moderate obsession with making things out of cardboard and then decorating them in my home. I have to read more of your blog now. It's an emergency!

  11. oh my goodness - you are one of the most amazing mamas i have ever seen. your kids must have a blast with you and you with them. i found you on ohdeedoh and will continue to check in. you're incredible. keep enjoying! robyn:

  12. A thought on envelopes - any catalogs, junk mail, and bills you receive have envelopes in them. If you aren't using them just add them to your post office. My kindergarten class always got a kick out of being able to seal up their mail and the bonus is they are free and delivered to your house.

  13. Thanks, Faith, for the idea - one we've used before but forgotten all about. The older kids like practising writing names on blank envelopes but our youngest will probably enjoy writing anything on pre-printed envelopes even more! Your kindergarten kids sound like they really enjoy doing post office!

  14. I'll never throw out a box again! Great ideas and photos. Thanks.

  15. Thanks for this inspiring post. i made a mailbox today for my grandkids. You have really good ideas. I hope to use your boat idea, soon, as well.

  16. hi!
    how did you make those adorable sock donuts?

  17. Great ideas! I found you on pinterest and am featuring you as a favorite find for the week! Check it out at
    ~*Jessica Lauren

  18. Some fabulous ideas - thanks so much. I hope it is OK to add a picture of your mailbox to my pinterst early years literacy board I want to make this for my classroom in the new school year :)

  19. Oh My Goodness! Those are FANTASTIC? Do you have tutorials for these somewhere? I'd love to know how you many any of them!

  20. You inspired my blog post today, and I included a link to your blog. I hope its OK I copied and pasted some of your pictures.
    Thanks for the amazing ideas, I found you on pinterest.

  21. This is awesome. It reminds me of my childhood. My mom took a huge 6 foot x 6 foot box for a machine from my dad's work and made me a playhouse similar to your donut shop/general store. I had windows cut out and she made curtains, etc. They even paid to have my box shipped from CA to FL when we moved because I wouldn't leave it behind. Best memories of my childhood. Thanks for the post. :)

    1. We had several similar experiences as a child(my sister and I), and when my son got his first big box (can't recall what it was for but it was about 2ft x 2ft x 4ft. I turned it into a little play house for him. The hours spent playing in that were incredible! I could only just fit in it with him, but I peaked the flaps and made a roof, cut a door and a window in it. He was just learning to walk and still mostly crawling when I made it, and I think he was almost two before it finally disintegrated. When he was 3, we got him a Lightning Mcqueen ride on toy that came in a large box. It was just the right size to cut and shape into a car. ( He played with this for weeks, but with him being larger and more rambunctious, the steering wheel eventually fell off, and the car aspect lost it's interest.

  22. @Shelly Claman
    Shelly, thanks so much for sharing your childhood story! Stories like that make me so happy!

  23. @Vanessa
    Thanks for the link, Vanessa! And yes, using the couple of photos is perfectly OK.

  24. Great projects! I was planning to try to create a race car out of cardboard for my son's Halloween costume, but didn't know where to start.

  25. These are all so cute! Great ideas! Saw these on pinterest...


  26. Found you on Pinterest. Love your blog :) Such great ideas. Thanks for sharing.

  27. love this and linked to you here:

  28. Beau travail !! que de patience :)

  29. Very stunning what you did with the cardboard boxes - I assume it took up a lot of time :/
    But still, you did an awesome job.

  30. This is great! I especially love the puppet stage! I'm working on our stove now. Check out our sink we made -

  31. Wow! Talk about awesome projects. My cardboard box projects were definitely more ghetto :)

  32. If you're interested in cardboard construction, and find that you spend a lot on tape, or that tape can be difficult to work with, then here is a neat suggestion:

    Mr. McGroovy's Box rivets are amazing! Happy building!

  33. GENIUS! I love all of these cool ideas. It makes me look at all the boxes I ususally recycle to the trash, IN A WHOLE NEW WAY! Thanks for that. I really look forward to trying some of your cool crafts with my little one. I just recently started my own "New Mommy" Blog, (like who hasn't right) lol. Anywho, if you ever wanna check it out, I'm at Stop by to see what Me & Z are up to today! :)

  34. I love your designs and the way you go above and beyond the basic shape! I love working with cardboard too. I use all kinds of boxes and tubes to make thing for my classroom with two year olds! Check out my blog that I just started too. There are lots of different projects on there and some include lots of cardboard. As much as I love the appeal of plain cardboard, you should try using colored contact paper to help add some more color to the projects! The kids could paint on the contact paper, wait for it to dry, peel it off, and paint again. It's also fun to use chalk on!

  35. Great ideas. When my daughter was just a couple years old we made her a house out of the Kenmore Dryer box. But, I got a bit clever with it, I cut red Solo cups and made a tile roof. It was the BomB!

  36. You are amazing!!!! I can't wait to make these with my kids!

  37. I got to say your very clever my kids love the post office one

  38. Love this post, found it on pinterest and repinning it!!

  39. You are extremely creative ! Great job!

  40. Thanks for your inspiration. :) I can't wait to do these projects too with my little girl. :)

  41. I loved your mailbox idea. I tried it out with my 1 & 4 year old daughters and they had a blast. We had so much fun I just had to share it with our readers too (giving you a link back of course)! Thanks for the great idea!

  42. how did you make the top round???

  43. Quick tip: I use inexpensive brown paper, recycled paper bags or leftover wrapping paper to cover the boxes. End of season wrapping paper is the best, I turn it over and use the white side! That way when they become decorated to death or the kids get bored I can tear the paper off and let the kids start over new!

    I also let the kids use inexpensive items I get at the dollar store or thrift store to spruce their creations up. Dress up kits, Refurbished pillows, Battery operated door bells, push lights and glowsticks have all been big hits!

  44. We made the Pirate ship today and Miss 3 absolutely loved it. So much fun and it is going to clutter up the loungeroom for many weeks I'm sure.

  45. Love these ideas!! My kids are nuts about cardboard. I really love the mailbox idea. We had just seen a toy mailbox at a friend's house, so this will be perfect for our next cardboard project.

  46. Love these ideas!! My kids are nuts about cardboard. I really love the mailbox idea. We had just seen a toy mailbox at a friend's house, so this will be perfect for our next cardboard project.

  47. How do you make the dog house?????????????

  48. I would love step-by-step instructions for the mailbox. My kids would LOVE to have one :-)

  49. I LOVE your cardboard art! I saw the mailbox on Pinterest today so linked here. I too enjoy cardboard art and though you have probably figured this out by now, I want to share one of my experiences about painting. I always paint mine and have learned the hard way that you must paint them with an oil based primer (like Kilz) first if you do not want them to warp. Water based paint right on the cardboard can really ruin all your hard work. Having said that, I love the way you leave them plain for your children to color on them as they seem like a great mom with lots of talent! Enjoy while you can! My daughters are 15 now and I rarely have reason for cardboard art :)

  50. belli !!la barca è favolosa!!

  51. Just thought I'd let you know I included a link to your cardboard boat box on my personal blog. Such a cute idea! Thanks for the post!

    Amy Senter

  52. Hooray for recycling and the most versatile, cheap, and readily available craft material out there: cardboard! Whether it's as small as a tissue box or as big as a refrigerator box, cardboard can be the blank slate where your kids' imaginations can run free!

  53. You make the best cardboard box items EVER! I'm jealous! lol. I would love to be able to make that mailbox - my 4-year-old would love it!

  54. If you compost at your home, once the creations fall apart just take the cardboard, cut it up, and throw it in the compost so i can decompose instead of throwing it away. Which gives a good lesson in recycling later on for your kids.

  55. Díky za skvělé nápady!!! Helena

  56. how/where did you find cardboard boxes with rounded edges for the large and small mailbox?! I would LOVE to make those for my daughter but haven't ever seen cardboard boxes rounded like that. Thank you!!!


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