Imagination and the cardboard box phenomenon

The other week our family did a large grocery shop. With more bags than we had arms we grabbed an empty cardboard fruit box from the supermarket shelves and piled our groceries inside in order to carry everything back to our car.

Two weeks later the groceries were long gone but that cardboard box remained. Sitting pride of place in the middle of our living room floor the cardboard box, now looking a little worse for wear, had been transformed into a house, monster-truck and racing car at various stages over the fortnight. That box was still being dragged across the floor in a million pieces two weeks after that before we bid it a tearful farewell into our recycling bin.

Every parent has encountered the “cardboard box phenomenon” at some point. Fortunately for us it came in the form of a complimentary piece of packaging in our run of the mill grocery shop. However, I know of some families who have spent hundreds of dollars on buying their children presents only to find that their children have been infinitely more interested in the plain old packaging in which it came.

What is it about a boring old cardboard box that children find so exciting?

If I were to boil it down into a simple answer it would be this – the power of imagination. For you see a cardboard box is not just a cardboard box. A cardboard box can be anything: a spaceship, a veterinary clinic or a taxi service for dragging your obliging infant brother around the house in. A cardboard box draws out a child’s creativity. It promotes imagination.

There are many wonderful and very natural ways that we can promote a child’s creativity but sadly a lot of these opportunities are not readily available to the modern family. While this list is by no means exhaustive here are some simple ways that you can promote creative thinking and the activation of imagination in your children.

  • Give them a cardboard box. I can hardly not start with this idea but let me expand further. Sadly, a lot of the toys that we place in front of our children do not promote creativity. If I was to put a plastic spaceship in front of my son it can only, by and large, one thing – a spaceship. But a cardboard box, well, that can be anything! Providing your children opportunities to play with more raw materials such as cardboard boxes, a pile of old clothes for dress ups, drawing and craft material, sticks and stones, stimulates their imagination.
  • Let your children be bored. This may sound counterproductive but it is often the longest stints of boredom that stimulate the most creative ideas in children. This is true for adults too. Often our greatest inventions come out of times of greatest need. Long car trips, rainy days and long stints outdoors encourage children to make their own fun. Children are remarkable. I have never heard of a child dying of boredom. They will find a creative way to amuse themselves.
  • Limit their screen time and technology use. There are many reasons why this is helpful, however in the context of this article limiting screen time takes away the low effort, high stimulation relationship of operating a device. There is very little impetus for a child to employ their imagination when they are being highly stimulated without it.