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?

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

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!

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!

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

Upcycle Plastic Grocery Bags Into a Colorful Tote

Don't toss those plastic bags, reimagine them into a handy tote bag that's cute and waterproof, to boot.

Turn a Wooden Stool Into a Party Beverage Station

This easy, DIY beverage station is not only cute and functional, it's upcycling genius.

11 Clever, Crafty Ways to Use the Things You're Hoarding

You know those wine corks, Mason jars and spare buttons you've been saving for future craft projects? Here are 11 DIYs you'll actually want to use them on.

How to Craft a Trendy Fabric-Covered Tray

Give an old wooden tray a trendy new lease on life by covering it with upholstery fabric, then add a high-end finishing touch with a decorative pattern created with nail-head trim.

Dress Up Milk Crates for Adorable Small-Space Storage

The humble milk crate gets a trendy (and budget-friendly!) makeover into a stylish storage solution that you won't want to hide.

How to Make an Upcycled Kitty Playground

Give kitty a fun place to play and rest by upcycling thrift store dressers.

Flea Market Flip: Test Your Bargain-Shopper IQ

From bargain buys to pricey purchases, can you guess how much these flips went for at the flea market? 

Design a Mosaic Wall Relief

Use discarded dishes from thrift stores and garage sales to create your own mosaic wall relief.

New Uses for Recycled Mullions

Check out these ideas for turning window grids into decorative home accessories.