Free-Play Activity for Kids: Build a Cardboard City From Upcycled Boxes

Looking for an easy, budget-friendly activity to keep the kids busy? Put boxes and other recyclables to use by encouraging kids to build a cardboard kingdom. Simply set out the materials and let your little ones unleash their creativity.

By: Amanda Thomsen

Related To:

If you’re doing a little more online shopping these days, here’s a reason to feel good about it. Reusing those cardboard boxes for creative free play before they make it to the recycling bin is a win/win. Why not let your kids make castles, cities, spaceships or tunnels out of boxes, all while strengthening kids' creativity and getting them out of the house?

Build a Cardboard City From Upcycled Boxes

Build a Cardboard City From Upcycled Boxes

Looking for an easy, budget-friendly activity to keep the kids busy? Put boxes and other recyclables to use by encouraging kids to build a cardboard kingdom. Simply set out the materials and let your little ones unleash their creativity.

Photo by: Amanda Thomsen

Amanda Thomsen

Creative play is important to children's wellbeing, giving them the ability to work out anxieties and channel their energy through role-playing, risk-taking and project management, all while building large and small motor skills.

Self-directed free play, where kids make the rules and play for an extended period of time, begins with boredom. So often, parents distract kids who say they’re bored with tiny treats, new toys or activities. When left to their own devices, this kind of constructive boredom, where kids rely on their imaginations, is an important tool for self-soothing and can come in handy later in life. This cardboard activity has the capacity to last all day long, with a few breaks to reorganize play. Related: A Parent's Guide to Free Play for Kids

Build a Cardboard City From Upcycled Boxes

Build a Cardboard City From Upcycled Boxes

Looking for an easy, budget-friendly activity to keep the kids busy? Put boxes and other recyclables to use by encouraging kids to build a cardboard kingdom. Simply set out the materials and let your little ones unleash their creativity.

Photo by: Amanda Thomsen

Amanda Thomsen

What You'll Need

To begin your cardboard construction, all you need is at least one bored kid with the time and freedom to get lost working on a project, and some cardboard boxes and tape. Either clear packing tape or duct tape works best. Get all the cardboard boxes onto the lawn, driveway, patio or balcony. This project works well when done the day before recycling pickup, as boundaries are in place for cleanup and disposal. Make sure to pick a day with no rain in the forecast, as soggy boxes are no fun to clean up!

Build a Cardboard City From Upcycled Boxes

Build a Cardboard City From Upcycled Boxes

Looking for an easy, budget-friendly activity to keep the kids busy? Put boxes and other recyclables to use by encouraging kids to build a cardboard kingdom. Simply set out the materials and let your little ones unleash their creativity.

Photo by: Amanda Thomsen

Amanda Thomsen

At first, kids will ask for a lot of guidance or perhaps be a little uncomfortable, but soon their creativity will kick in, and then all parents need to do is stand back. Kids will figure out how to fit boxes end to end to create a structure that is all their own, with parents only helping when invited to do so.

Creations can be made kid-sized for children to crawl in and through, or more doll-sized for a different kind of imaginative play. Kids can also make armor, turn themselves into robots or pretend to be an animal that lives in a burrow underground — the only limitations are their imaginations and how much tape you have on hand!

Build a Cardboard City From Upcycled Boxes

Build a Cardboard City From Upcycled Boxes

Looking for an easy, budget-friendly activity to keep the kids busy? Put boxes and other recyclables to use by encouraging kids to build a cardboard kingdom. Simply set out the materials and let your little ones unleash their creativity.

Photo by: Amanda Thomsen

Amanda Thomsen

Other Materials for More Fun

  • Poster paints or finger paints can be a fun addition. The paint will inevitably get on the little builders, so make sure it’s non-toxic and easily washed (or hosed off with the garden hose, which is another kind of fun).
  • Scissors are often difficult to use on cardboard boxes, but kids over 8 may have some success.
  • Aluminum foil or plastic cling wrap make fun play materials that can be reused. They make great windows and metal details.
  • Tarps can be placed under the cardboard castle for more controlled cleanup.
  • Felt embellishments can be easily cut and stuck onto cardboard castles and creations.
  • Wrapping paper tubes, poster mailers and oatmeal containers make great additional materials for building.

Setting out juice or water and snacks helps to increase the flow of creativity since they'll need fewer “indoor” breaks.

If younger children ask for more materials, it’s fun to say “yes” to give their little imaginations more acceptance. For older creative minds, it can be laid out more like a challenge: “What can you build with only these materials?”

The sweet spot for this kind of creative free play is anything over 45 minutes. It takes that long to shake off the quotidian routine, set new rules and build new empires!

Amanda Thomsen is a garden designer obsessed with edible landscapes, messy outdoor play and collecting kitsch. She has written two books, Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored to You and Backyard Adventure: Get Messy, Get Wet, Build Cool Things and Have Tons of Wild Fun! She lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband, daughter and too many pets.

Next Up

3 Ways to Turn Buffalo Plaid Scarves Into DIY Holiday Decor

Give new life to your old buffalo plaid scarves by upcycling them into budget-friendly holiday decorations.

Keep the Kids Busy Indoors With Our Rainy Day Scavenger Hunt

Wash away those rainy day blues with our kid-friendly indoor scavenger hunt you can download and print at home for free.

Make This Multi-Craft New Year’s Eve Gift Box for a Festive Virtual Send-off

Send your friends some shiny DIY garland and custom confetti poppers to create the perfect “Auld Lang Syne” Zoom moment.

Blah to Bespoke: How to Stencil Drapery Panels for a Designer Look for Less

Give basic white drapery panels a not-so-basic makeover with an oversized stencil and budget-friendly acrylic craft paint for a look that says you splurged — when you really saved.

Mother's Day Kids' Craft: Fingerprint Table Runner

Get the kids involved in crafting and decorating for Mother's Day brunch by personalizing a plain white table runner with colorful fingerprints.

Use Shaving Cream to Create Easy, Marbleized Easter Eggs

Give wooden eggs a fuss-free marbleized effect with inexpensive items you likely already have on hand.

Upcycled Flannel Holiday Gift Wrap

Start saving those empty dry-good containers now to upcycle into festive fabric-clad packages that can be used again and again.

5 Small Things We've Bought That Saved Us Money in the Long Run

From products that help curb expensive drink habits to long-lasting LED lights, take a cue from our editors and discover small household items we love, all under $100, that can save you money down the road.

DIY Cat Tree: Turn a Shelving Unit Into a Cat Tower

Learn how to repurpose a thrift-store find like a wooden baker’s rack into a high-rise cat tree complete with a satisfying scratch post, litter box and kitty hammock.

Go Shopping

Get product recommendations from HGTV editors, plus can’t-miss sales and deals.

On TV

House Hunters

7:30am | 6:30c

House Hunters

8:30am | 7:30c

House Hunters

9:30am | 8:30c

House Hunters

10am | 9c

House Hunters

10:30am | 9:30c

House Hunters

11am | 10c

House Hunters

11:30am | 10:30c

House Hunters

12pm | 11c

House Hunters

12:30pm | 11:30c

Home Town

1pm | 12c

Home Town

2pm | 1c

Home Town

3pm | 2c

Home Town

4pm | 3c

Home Town

5pm | 4c

Home Town

6pm | 5c

Home Town

7pm | 6c
On Tonight
On Tonight

Home Town

8pm | 7c

Home Town

9pm | 8c

House Hunters

10pm | 9c

House Hunters

11pm | 10c

Home Town

12am | 11c

Home Town

1am | 12c

Home Town

4am | 3c

Home Town

5am | 4c

Follow Us Everywhere

Join the party! Don't miss HGTV in your favorite social media feeds.