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Funny Cuz It's True: Kids Prefer Cardboard Boxes to Flashy Toys (Or, How We Free Play)

Taylor Hengen Newman

“Parents desperate to get their hands on the top toys for Christmas have been stunned to learn the best plaything for youngsters is the humble cardboard box.” I had to wonder, when I read this line yesterday -- How is this stunning? Isn’t this a running, funny-cuz-it’s-true joke among parents, who buy their kids the most coveted toys only to discover the littles far prefer the boxes they came in? Boxes that can be turned into rocket ships or submarines, with the help of a few markers and some imagination?

Well, the UK’s Ribena Toy Report has recently confirmed what (some) parents have known for generations: kids actually do prefer the box to the flashy toy. And the box – like other simple items that promote ‘free play’ – aids in cognitive and language development, according to experts, more than the latest Leap Pad gadget does. Unfortunately, a third of parents report feeling ‘pressured’ by the toy marketing industry to buy the latest electronic toys for their kids each Christmas, despite the toll doing so takes on their wallets.

So the makers of the Ribena Plus Toy Report -- which found that nearly twice as many parents report their children prefer playing with boxes than gadgets -- are bringing the cardboard box back. They’re distributing 4,500 boxes (yep, just boxes... with nothing in them) to families across the UK, to get the free play party started. Other parents who want in can download six free templates for their kids to transform their own boxes into dinosaurs, boats, houses, cars, shops, and rocket ships, launching off hours of fun.

Honestly, I don’t think kids need templates (enter: imaginations), but parents might appreciate them, especially if they want to get creative themselves; I think any kid would be psyched to wake up to a ready-to-launch rocket ship (or a playhouse!), made by mom and dad, on Christmas morning. And I applaud the Ribena report for looking into the state of play today, and for doing something about it.

Although the box thing seems obvious, it doesn’t seem to stop us, as parents, from buying tons of stuff for our kids. (This is perhaps more true here in America than anywhere else… and it’s something I’ve been wanting to blog about for a while!) I’m often surprised by how otherwise environmentally and socially conscious parents I know still buy anything, and everything, for their littles. The stuff invariably piles up and creates clutter, the kids get bored with it, and the parents go out and buy more.

Some families, however, are beginning to question the amount of consumption – and waste – their families create, and when it comes to toys, these families are discovering less really is more. Buying fewer toys means we create less packaging waste, which is better for our planet. We bring fewer factory-made chemicals into our homes, which is better for our bodies. We accumulate fewer piles of stuff to trip on, and to collect dust and germs in our homes, which is better for our families. And we spend less money, which is better for our wallets. In my family, this means the toys we do buy can be high-quality toys made of safe, eco and kid-friendly materials that will last, and that promote creative play for a wide range of ages (so Kaspar won’t grow out of them in a few months). We think about how the toys we’re buying measure up, on each of these points, and we’re willing (and able) to spend a little more on them if they do, because we haven’t already spent our money on a bunch of plastic junk. 

Kaspar’s favorite toys right now are his balance bike, his tree branch blocks, and his play cookware. I love the bike -- which I found at TykeRider.com -- because it converts in size and shape (three to two-wheeler) as he grows; he started riding around on it when he was about eighteen months old, and it’ll last him until he’s five. It was a good investment! It also gets him outside, burning off all that boy-energy, and helping him to refine his coordination and muscle control. (According to the Ribena report, one in six kids does not engage in any form of outdoor play… that is so sad! Kids need to get dirty!)

Kaspar’s blocks (shown above) are from a fabulous Canadian company, Natural Pod. They’re made of locally sourced wood, with a beeswax finish. (They smell yummy, too.) Kaspar usually builds block towers (and... "libraries"?) while I cook dinner in the evenings. I used to let him watch an episode of Thomas at that time so I could actually get dinner made – he starts to get tired, hungry and thus cranky around 5:30, which can translate to a lot of fussing and not much cooking happening – but that turned into a bad habit, for both of us. So instead of staring at a screen, Kaspar now zens out with his blocks, contentedly honing his fine motor skills (to him it’s just playing), and beaming with pride when I look over the half-divider-wall-thing between our kitchen and living room to admire his creations.

Sometimes he likes to “cook” while I’m cooking, too. I think real cooking is fantastic for kids, but it’s not always convenient for parents, especially when you’re racing the clock. Luckily, Kaspar also enjoys pretending to cook with his small collection of wooden toy food, and his wok. The stir-fry set actually came with slice-able veggies, too, and a ‘knife’. Kaspar gets totally absorbed in cutting his veggies -- he uses the couch as his countertop -- which allows me the time I need to get our real meal on the table.

Chef Kaspar:

So, as the holidays near, we asked ourselves: what do you give a boy who has a bike, blocks and a wok? Well, a photo that his teacher texted to me from school -- wherin Kaspar sat at a 'work' table, neatly cutting strips of paper into pieces, with some child-friendly scissors ("He concentrated on this for fifteen minutes," his teacher said), inspired our idea for this year's gift. I bought a child size table and chairs (used, a la Craigslist), which Aaron and I are going to make over, with milk paint (my fave). We’ll then set up a Kaspar “work” station along a wall in our kitchen, with some mounted shelves, and a chalkboard, in addition to the table. We’ll stock the shelves with toddler-friendly “activity bags” (or small boxes) – inspired by Pinterest. (Follow me!) We’re using eco-friendly and up-cycled materials, spending very little, and creating this together, which is fun for us as a couple, too. Best of all, we know Kaspar will love his little space, and use it for all kinds of creative play.

How do you control the amount of kid ‘stuff’ that comes into your home (what about stuff that comes from sources other than you, too? Namely... grandparents)? Do your kids have a lot of toys? Do you know what you’re getting your kids for Christmas (and/or other holidays) this year? Have you considered downsizing? Do you have any great strategies around specific toys, tools or everyday objects that promote ‘free play’?

PS. Unrelated to play, but had to share this, (click the link and read the whole caption -- so awesome!) since we talk about breastfeeding so much around here on 100% Natural Parenting!

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