By Joan Hershberger
As I inspected some toys in a shop, an older gentleman turned to me and said, "Have you found any bargains you like?"
"You can give lots of toys, but what they will play with is the box. Once I got a big box for the grandchildren. It had thick cardboard. I cut windows and a door and left it in their garage. Those children played with it for months. They colored and cut it and were in and out of it a lot. Their mom parked her car in the driveway. Then as the weather cooled, she said she knocked it out of the garage and it got wet."
He smiled at the memory of all the fun his grandchildren had during those months. The box became their hide-out, their secret getaway, a boat, a house and who knows what else. He knew they found it the best toy ever.
Others shared his vision. Once I saw an impressive cardboard box arrangement in a driveway: five large cardboard boxes assembled to make a castle. It had windows, curtains and doors and was painted pink. Except for it being child-size, I would have asked to go inside that corridor of imagination.
You can buy pre-made cardboard houses, castles or other shapes. I prefer the blank canvas of a free appliance box for a child's imagination. The box does not even have to be huge. Plenty of average sized boxes have become cars or train cars. It's fun to watch children push and whirl each other around in a box as the rider screams with delight.
My mother chose an oval shaped, fruit basket to make a bassinet for my new baby doll as my Christmas gift when I was in second grade. She also made one for both of my sisters. The dolls came from the store. The bassinets she made. She painted the baskets white, folded flannel for blankets and tucked the dollies snuggly under the tree. We kept those dolls and their beds in our playroom until we moved and realized we no longer played with them. Her inexpensive, imaginative gift remains one of her gifts I still remember.
Maybe that is one reason I want to save every box longer than necessary. I know that last week my inner child looked at the round oatmeal box and longed to add fabric, cushion and paint it to create a doll's cradle. The adult in me threw it away.
When we had our first child, I read a suggestion to use rinsed out milk cartons to make the toddler's first blocks. The author said that children first learn to knock over a stack of blocks before they begin building their own towers to knock over. I saved and washed out 20 cartons. We had a grand time building towers. The baby laughed and chortled every time he saw another tower rising to the ceiling. Eventually he began putting one box on top of another by himself, so we introduced the traditional wooden, alphabet blocks.
One summer my daughter's girls wanted an expensive dollhouse for their 18" dolls. Their mom encouraged them to make their own out of cardboard boxes. They made the dream dollhouse using craft materials to decorate it. They enjoyed making the house more than playing with it afterward. As did my sisters and I when we used shoeboxes to make a house for our Betsy McCall dolls.
Too often, elaborate toys deprive a child of the opportunity to imagine. Let them play with the empty box, make a mess, have imperfect creations. They might surprise you with what they can envision and make.
Joan Hershberger is a former staff writer for the El Dorado News-Times and author of "Twenty Gallons of Milk and other columns from the El Dorado News-Times."