Why Your Kid Likes the Box More Than the Toy

Every parent knows what I’m talking about: You find the perfect gift for your 4-year-old’s birthday, wrap it in his favorite Buzz Lightyear wrapping paper, and smile with satisfaction when he opens it and says, “All right! I wanted this! Thanks, Mom and Dad!” But no matter how grand the initial reaction, it never seems to fail that two hours later, that very toy is laying on the couch and your child is in his bedroom playing with the box it came in.

I’ve always been fascinated with the fact that my son seems to prefer cardboard boxes, paper towel rolls, and broom handles to a $50 toy with elaborate lights, sound effects, a bagful of accessories, and the ability to break pencils with its karate-chop action while narrating the mini-book that comes with it. With the advancements of today’s toys, why are kids still enamored with what we would consider garbage (or “recyclables” to my eco-friendly readers)?

Because young kids have imaginations, and they love to use them.

I was reading about this phenomenon in an amazingly insightful, challenging, and funny book called, Free Range Kids, by Lenore Skenazy. The book deals with some of the culturally-accepted, but crazy things that we as parents (particularly in America) do and think about when it comes to our kids.

In this particular chapter, the author deals with the modern lack of good old-fashioned imagination in our kids’ development. We parents tend to worry far too much about buying the right toys or enrolling our kids in the right programs that promote the right research-based brain stimulation. This worry leads us to surround our kids with specialized (and oftentimes expensive) learning toys. We’re also experts at caving in to the omnipotent marketing machine which tells us we need to buy particular brand-specific (and oftentimes expensive) toys. We’re so focussed on giving our child what the “experts” and marketers in our culture say they need, that we overlook the most basic (and inexpensive) learning tool — imagination.

We buy these cool toys, and our kids like them for a little while, but in the end, the toy can only be what the toy was designed to be. Harrison’s Star Wars lightsaber — with activation action, glowing blue light, and movie-like “whooooahh, whooooah” sound effects — is great, but it’s always only a light saber. A leftover wrapping paper tube, on the other hand, can be a lightsaber in the morning, a bazooka at lunchtime, and a fishing pole later in the day. The sound effects do not come from battery-powered microchips, but from the kid’s mouth (imagine that).

As Skenazy puts it:

“When a kid has a box, it can be anything, right? A house, a castle, a cave. So already it’s more flexible than most of today’s fancy toys, which not only “do” things (like Elmo) but are also often tied to a movie or TV show. The problem with those licensed toys is that they come preprogrammed in a child’s mind to do whatever the character does on TV or in the movies. You don’t give Darth Vader a high-pitched squeaky voice if you already know exactly how he sounds. So creativity gets a bit crippled.”

I’m not saying that for little Suzy’s next birthday, you should skip the toy store and go digging through the garbage for her birthday present, but I am saying that perhaps you shouldn’t concern yourself with buying the popular $75 toy with all the bells and whistles. What if, instead, you bought her a simple doll (one without a name, without a tragic family back-story, and without the ability to poop or babble or fuss) and let her imagination do the rest?

Or get your hands on a refrigerator box, and really let her blow your mind.

You probably won’t remember this, but last year you and I built a huge fort in the living room out of 4 or 5 large moving boxes. It took me a good 45 minutes to put it together and to cut out the doors and windows. We crawled around in that thing together for about an hour, and you spent the next week or so in that fort, imagining heaven only knows what while you played. Because of some cardboard and duct tape, I had the chance to see that you were created with such a vivid and capable imagination. Shame on me for buying you toys that do the imagining for you. Keep on imagining, kiddo.

  • Whitney

    I love this, and so agree!

  • Will

    Mike, it’s so weird that I was thinking about that exactly this same thought this morning! Except that you’ve put it into words the way I couldn’t have! Awesome.

    • http://DearHarrison.com/ Michael Gray

      Thanks for the kind words, Will. And thanks for taking the time to comment.

      It’s amazing to watch little kids who aren’t as enamored with the next new thing as they are with their own imaginations. Makes us adults look a bit shallow sometimes. :)