“We got this cardboard box in the mail. Dad emptied out last night and we sailed out into the middle of the sea."
– Justin Roberts, Lyrics from song “Cardboard Box," Jungle Gym, 2010
In 2005, the cardboard box was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. The first induction class wasn't until 1998, so I'll cut the Hall some slack. But in my opinion, that was seven years too late.
We had a steep hill behind my apartment complex where I grew up. The one thing every kid I knew loved to do most was to slide down that grassy slope using a flattened box as a sled. It was rare for us to get good sledding snow, but we had plenty of grass and boxes to keep us entertained almost year-round.
The cardboard box has everything a child and a parent could want in a toy. It's versatile, cost-effective, easily accessible, lightweight yet (relatively) durable, and recyclable. This means it won't sit in the corner for years taking up space after your kids have decided to move onto other entertainment.
But the true beauty of the cardboard box is the way its artful simplicity sparks the imagination and exercises motor skills. Whether kids fold it, cut it, draw on it, glue it, paint it, build with it, sit in it, on it, or under it, a plain cardboard box presents endless possibilities – all of them within their control. This is probably why kids spend as much time playing with a box than they do with what came packaged within it.
Bottom line: Give a kid a cardboard box and you give them the world.
A recent Gallup study suggested the value of unstructured, open-ended play is lost on many parents. According to decades of previous research, however, it is the most developmentally enriching kind of activity for kids of every age.
For 100 years, toy manufacturers have challenged themselves to produce the next great…cardboard box – or at least make a toy with as much versatility and ability to hold kids' attention, from one generation to the next.
Since the turn of the 20th century, relatively few manufacturers have achieved this “holy grail" of toy making. Those few have claimed a coveted spot alongside the timeless box in the Toy Hall of Fame.
The best toys for open-ended play, which have stood the test of time
Jump to your childhood
Parent Co. partnered with Tenka Labs because they believe the best toys leave something to the imagination.
Toys from the 2010s
Circuit Cubes (2014)
Designed by STEM educators and FIRST LEGO League coaches, these electronic building blocks from Tenka Labs bring kids' creations to life. They were built from the ground up to fully integrate with LEGO®-style building blocks, but can be used with any materials kids can imagine, from vintage toys to recycled milk cartons.
Circuit Cubes teach the basic fundamentals of electronics. Their unique transparent design enables kids to literally see the connections they make when they light an LED, power a motor, or activate a switch. Circuit Cubes can also be used vertically, horizontally, and diagonally to accommodate any design.
It may seem like we are eons away from the relevance of something as simple as an empty cardboard box. Yet even the most current toys mentioned above share something critical in common: They allow a child's imagination to burgeon in that creative space where possibility always wins the day.
This amazing learn-to-code kit incorporates the physical world of open play toys with the digital experience. In fact, Osmo has re-energized Hall of Fame-caliber toys like blocks, puzzles, Hot Wheels cars, and various drawing utensils by integrating them with applications on the iOS platform.
This three-dimensional “sandbox" game has taken the traditional linear approach to gaming – where the goal is to win by defeating a series of challenges and/or end “bosses" – to a whole new level. The platform allows kids to freely build, change, roam, and even destroy worlds of their own making.
We've had these since our kids were about four and just beginning to build things. They were always so proud to walk up and show one me one of the octagonal orbs they'd created almost like magic in the palm of their little hand.
In 2007, Mitch Resnick and his MIT Media Lab research group launched this programming language. Since then, tens of millions of kids around the world have been empowered to create their own interactive stories, games, and animations and to share their evolving projects within a safe online community.
KEVA Planks (mid-2000s)
These are the next generation of dominoes, the centuries-old card-like tile game and open-ended building toy. The uniform wooden tiles are used by kids and adults, students and professionals, in homes, museums, libraries, and schools at every level of education.
No glue, no magnets, nothing to distinguish or hold them together but the user's imagination. They're used for hands-on learning and creating everything from architectural marvels, like this world record tower at the National Building Museum, to playful Rube Goldberg-style machines.
Rory's Story Cubes (2004)
The ultimate story starters for kids and adults! I've used these over the past two years as an Odyssey of the Mind coach for warm-up exercises to encourage my eight- to 10-year-old team members to think more creatively.
I gotta say, I'm proud (and relieved) to have been a kid of the 70s and 80s, because the 90s were a bleak wasteland devoid of enduring, open-ended toys.
Sure, the 90s saw the launch of Nintendo's Game Boy in 1991, which, of course, was just a portable version of the already wildly popular NES gaming system from the 80s. But little else emerged from the decade that would stand the test of time.
To give you an idea of just how dismal the toy landscape was during the 90s, Toy of the Year Awards were given to short-lived fads, such as POGS (1995), Furbies (1998, an award shared with Beanie Babies), and the uber-irritating, feed-me-now Tamagotchi (1997).
I pity you, 90s kids, I really do. At least you still had plenty of mainstay toys from the 80s to help you survive.
A puzzle and action figure in one! The Transformers line of toys is produced by American toy company Hasbro, who purchased the distribution rights to the molds of Japanese company Takara Tomy's Diaclone and Microman toy lines in 1984.
Rebranded “Transformers" for distribution in North America, the shape-shifting Autobot and Decepticon toys are well-known for their “robots in disguise!" tagline. A whole suite of movies soon followed.
Rubik's Cube (1980)
This legendary 3D puzzle not only offers a great lesson in problem-solving, but also invaluable lessons about perseverance and learning through failure.
Erno Rubik recently shared the story of how he eventually cracked his own code. Now kids (and adults) have whole YouTube channels dedicated to the challenge.
Micro Machines by Galoob (1980s)
Tiny vehicles of all kinds, interlocking cityscape sections, and so much more. In fact, Hasbro began producing its Star Wars line of play sets in the mid-90s with the release of the series prequels, episodes I through III.
The uncontested pioneer of the role-playing game genre. I used to spend days designing and drawing my heroic characters so that I could test their skills against the most evil and fantastic beasts. My next-door neighbor was usually the Dungeon Master, which made me the lone player fighting for my life – not the ideal D&D; set up, but we enjoyed it anyway.
With a few diagrams, some bare-bones descriptions, and a set of distinctive dungeon dice to provide parameters, the name of the game was always imagination.
It takes some steady hand-eye coordination, but if you're up for the challenge (and what kid isn't?), you can create amazing things with an Etch-A-Sketch, even if that thing is just a well-placed staircase. If you don't like what you made, then just shake it up and try again.
The company has now added many new ways to sketch. There's even a smartphone app for iOS and Android.
Hot Wheels (1968)
According to the National Toy Hall of Fame and Mattel, “Mattel has produced upwards of three billion cars, outdistancing the combined output of the Big Three automakers. More than 800 models and 11,000 variations of Hot Wheels have been manufactured."
With those kinds of numbers, there's more than enough horsepower to fuel kids' creative need for speed, not to mention their interest in pretend world building and/or mechanical engineering.
Whether it's a play kitchen, restaurant, workshop, doctor's office, or grocery store, pretend play sets are a kid's 3D gateway to adventure and creativity. They're also an important part of a child's development. They enable kids to role-play, explore, and build confidence as they learn social skills in a make-believe world that approximates the real one.
These vibrant sets of semi-sticky cut vinyl shapes help kids storyboard their own adventures, over and over again, with a variety of characters and objects that can be repositioned as many times as they like.
The first sets, developed by art students Harry and Patricia Kislevitz in 1951, featured basic geometric shapes and bright primary colors on black or white backgrounds. The first 1,000 sets were spiral-bound and hand-assembled by the husband and wife team and sold to FAO Schwartz. In 1957, Popeye became the first licensed Colorforms character.
This modeling compound was first manufactured in the 1930s and sold as wallpaper cleaner. Then a happy accident led to the material being used by a nursery school class to make inexpensive Christmas ornaments. And the rest is history.
Little Green Army Men (1930s)
Plastic Army men evolved from metal soldier figurines, which date back to ancient times and have even been found in Egyptian tombs. Toy soldiers were used in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries by military strategists to plot tactics and track opposing forces on real battlefields.
In 1893, a British toy company, William Britain, revolutionized the production of metal toy soldiers with its hollow casting technique. The first American plastic toy soldiers were made by Bergen Toy & Novelty Co. in 1938.
Following World War II, Army men were sold unpainted and made of green plastic to correspond to the standard U.S. Army uniforms of the time.
What's not to love? I don't know a child who isn't familiar with LEGOs. As evidence of their enduring influence and staying power, much like Erector Sets (1911) and Tinkertoys (1913) before them, LEGO have served as the foundation upon which other advances in building and engineering fields are based. This recent breakthrough in electronics is no exception.
When kids dream of their next creature, invention, or adventure, are they dreaming in black and white? Of course not.
A box of crayons and a blank canvas of any kind – cardboard, construction paper, notebook paper, whatever! – is an immediate catalyst for creativity. These colored sticks are usually made of paraffin wax but can also be made from charcoal, chalk, or other materials.
The word “crayon" dates from the mid-1600s and comes from the French word for “chalk" (craie) and the Latin word for “earth" (creta). In 1903, the Binney & Smith Company invented the Crayola crayon and would later change its name to match the iconic product.
Wooden alphabet building blocks (1800s)
Alphabet blocks have ancient roots. Their concept and form grew from the dice used in board games as early as 5000 BC.
Alphabet blocks were first described in 1954 by English writer Sir Hugh Plat in a book of inventions titled “The Jewell House of Art and Nature". The book described the blocks as possibly made of bone or wood and a “ready way for children to learn their A, B, Cs."
English philosopher John Locke helped popularize the general concept in the late 1600s. Since then, kids have used blocks to spell, count, sort, build, stimulate tactile sensation and motor coordination, and even learn the periodic table of the elements.
Puppets (2000 BC)
Evidence suggests that puppets have been used for storytelling and to communicate ideas since 2000 BC. Their use and influence has touched cultures across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
The first puppets are thought to have been used in Egypt, where ivory and clay puppets have been found in tombs. Puppets were mentioned in writings as early as 422 BC and, in Ancient Greece, both Aristotle and Plato referenced puppetry. Many historians believe puppets even predate actors in the theater.
Parent Co. partnered with Tenka Labs because they believe the best toys leave something to the imagination.