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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

The 1950s | The 1960s | The 1970s | The 1980s | The 1990s

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.

Osmo (2013)

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.

Minecraft (2011)

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.

The 2000s

Magformers (2008)

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.

Scratch (2007)

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.

1990s

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.

1980s

Transformers (1984)

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.


1970s

Dungeons & Dragons (1974)

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.

1960s

Etch-A-Sketch (1960)

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.


1950s

Pretend Play Sets (1950)

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.

Colorforms (1951)

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.

Play-Doh (1954)

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.

Pre-1950s

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.

LEGO (1916)

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.

Crayons (1903)

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.

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We've seen the tired old trope in articles, commercials and television shows so many times: working moms just have too much to do. They're chauffeuring kids around to evening practices, making lunches after said kids go to bed and staying up till the wee hours of the morning catching up on their relentless and stressful jobs. The message is clear: working moms are tired and burnt out. They don't get enough time for themselves because they're so busy giving it all to their families and their jobs. But does this really line up with the working mothers you know?

Here's a secret many working mothers have figured out: less really is more. The minimalist movement—simplifying your life and stuff to gain more time—has revolutionized life as a working mother. The minimalist mom gets a full night of sleep, has time with her kids and, importantly, has time for herself. Here's how:

1. She says no.

A minimalist mom knows her limits, her interests and what the tipping point is for herself and her family. So, she limits volunteering to what interests her and what she can reasonably fit into her life. She guards her Wednesday nights—the night she always takes off from family duties to hit a yoga class or do something for herself—fiercely. She also says no to her kids: it's one out-of-school activity at a time and Sunday mornings are always for family. She's also mastered saying this at work: No, I can't take your work on. No, I won't be staying late to finish your last-minute request.

2. She knows where to spend her money for increased quality of life.

She would rather hire a bi-weekly cleaner than buy a pair of designer jeans. Weeknight meals are easy and from the slow cooker or just a simple spread of crackers, cheese and fruit. Fast food and takeout is expensive, and she'd rather spend that money on a babysitter and three courses at that new trattoria for date night. She is happy to buy the expensive snow boots for her oldest so they last through all three kids—saving not only money, but also time shopping. The kitchen renovation can wait until the youngest is out of daycare. Until then, she'd rather use fun money to buy an extra week of vacation and road trip as a family. Her spending aligns with one of her biggest values: having time for the things and people she loves.

3. She doesn't care what other people think.

Her workwear is five outfits for each season and no more. It's professional, flattering and easy. No one notices if you've worn the same outfit for seven Tuesdays in a row. She doesn't care what grandiose delicacies are brought for the school bake sale: She brings the same delicious butter cookies (the ones that they can freeze a quadruple batch of dough for) to every event requiring a cookie or baked good. Keeping up with the Joneses—who are stressed out and broke—isn't her thing.

4. Her kids do some things, not everything.

The family lives by a shared Google calendar and there are set rules around weekend playdates and kids' activities. Their kids have a healthy mix of structured activities and unstructured play time. She is a person first; chauffeur, playdate arranger and sideline soccer mom second.

5. She delegates like the boss that she is.

She hasn't done kid laundry since her oldest could reach the stacked washer dryer on his own. Her husband alternates meal planning and grocery shopping with her every week and makes all the kids' dentist appointments (she does the doctor appointments). She only takes the dog for a walk when she wants to; otherwise the kids do it. When an older kid forgets his or her lunch at home, they know that they have to figure it out for themselves: raiding their stash of granola bars in their locker or borrowing money from a friend for lunch. She understands she can't do it all, but rather, she and her family can do the basics together.

6. She knows what she and her family need (and want).

Her non-negotiables are her running group that has met every Saturday at 7 A.M. for a decade, a long weekend away with her spouse every fall and bedtime stories with the kids at least three nights a week. She knows what people and things fuel her—this makes it easy to say no to things that don't. She has a rule for friends that invite her to those kitchen gadget/jewelry/leggings parties: if she knows the salesperson well, she'll buy one item but won't attend the party. Every other invitation is a no.

7. She has hard and fast rules around taking work home with her.

Her team knows that if they have something urgent after 6 P.M. they better call her. She doesn't check email once she has left the office until 6 A.M. the next morning. When she gets home from a week of work travel, she takes a four-day weekend. Her schedule is blocked out from 4 P.M. onwards. so she isn't scheduled into end-of-day meetings that could run long. She meditates for 10 minutes at the end of her shift so she can leave the work stress at work. She guards her personal time and mental space fiercely.

8. She views work as a break from family time and family time as a break from work.

Being mentally present and engaged at work and at home means no guilt over enjoying her balance of work and family life. She cheerfully enjoys that there's no diapers to change for nine hours a day Monday to Friday, and when she's home she revels in being out of her office and untethered from her phone and laptop. Learning to quickly switch gears from work, family and personal time is a skill she has mastered to simplify her life.

The minimalist working mother doesn't do it all: she does the things that are important to her and to her family. Her list is unique to her and no one else. How she spends her time and her money directly aligns with what she values. This ethos of living her values makes it clear, fast and easy to make decisions. She knows that time is her most valuable resource and she spends it wisely at home and at work.

Originally posted on Working Mother.

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When I was pregnant I worried about what would happen if the baby cried for me while I was in a deep sleep. Like so many pregnancy worries, though, blocking out my baby's cries was something I didn't really need to be concerned about. An alarm clock can go off inches from my head and I'll sleep through it for hours, but if my baby cries at the other end of the house, I'm wide awake.

It turns out, the sound of my baby crying impacts my brain very differently than a beeping alarm.

I'm hardly the first parent to make this observation, and science is on to it, too. There's plenty of research about how a baby's cries impact its mother on a physical level. A study of mother mice published in Nature found that adding oxytocin (a hormone released in strong doses during labor and lactation) to the brains of the mamas changed the way they processed the sound of crying pups—and helped them learn how to recognize and respond to the sounds.

A dose of this “motherhood hormone," it seems, leads to increased sensitivity to the sound of your child in distress.

According to Robert Froemke, that study's senior investigator, this suggests oxytocin amplifies the way the auditory cortex processes incoming cries from our own babies. He says the same seems to be true for female mice as female humans: The sound of a crying baby stirs up a great sense of urgency.

This physiological reaction allow us to develop rapid, reliable behaviors to our babies' cries, says Froemke. In time, it also helps us learn what the cries mean—and how we can respond in a helpful way.

When our babies cry, “[as parents, we] don't know what's really going to work, we just try a bunch of stuff. Let's change a diaper, let's feed the baby, let's do a little dance," he says. “Eventually we learn this repertoire of parenting skills because we're all in, we're all invested and that baby depends on us absolutely to take care of it."

Researchers believe that it may be this hormonal shift in the brain that alerts a mother to the sound of her child's cry.

Mothers' brains have a different level of sensitivity to crying babies

In humans and in mice, dads often respond to a baby's cries, but the brain chemistry is a little different: According to Froemke, extra oxytocin doesn't speed up the reaction to crying pups in male mice the way it does for females.

"There is a difference in terms of [ a father's] sensitivity to oxytocin. We think that may be because the male oxytocin system is already maxed out," he explains, adding there is something about living with a female and child that contributes to a natural oxytocin increase in mouse dads. (Further proof moms aren't the only ones to deal with big hormone changes.)

But when it comes to the brains of human parents, there is more evidence that the brains of men and women respond to crying babies differently. A study published in NeuroReport looked at the brains of 18 men and women who heard a baby crying while inside a brain scanner. The women's brain activity suggested an immediate alertness, while the men's brain activity didn't change.

That study suggests there are gender differences in the way we process baby sounds, but a lot of dads will tell you they can't and don't sleep through a baby cries. And that's for good reason: According to Froemke, it's no biological accident that babies signal distress in a way that can pierce parents brains even when our eyes are closed.

"Parents have to sleep, too," he says, but, "Sounds penetrate our brains, they tap into something deep and we can quickly rouse from a deep slumber, jump out of bed and tend to infant needs."

Just as my son is biologically wired to be my personal alarm clock, I am biologically wired to hear him—even if I can still sleep through everything else.

[Originally published October 18. 2017]

[Editor's note: This story is a letter from a woman to her husband. While this is one example of one type of relationship, we understand, appreciate and celebrate that relationships come in all forms and configurations.]

To my husband,

We met when I was 22. We started building a life together. We became each other's best friend, cheerleader, guidance counselor, and shelter from the storm. We laughed together, cried together, and stood up in front of all the people who matter to us and vowed to stay together until one of us dies.

We said the words without irony or hesitation, knowing that while we weren't perfect, the problems we could face in life would never be enough to break us.

And babe, I had no clue what our future held. But I knew I wanted to experience it only with you.

Then we got pregnant! And when our son was born, I marveled at the fact that we made a person. You and me. It honestly still blows my mind even five years later.

I'd heard women say things like, I fell in love with my husband all over again once I saw him as a daddy. I love watching you be a daddy, too—but just like becoming a mother has been transformative for me, becoming a father has been transformative for you, too. And it has taken us some time to get to know the new versions of ourselves.

We worked together—mostly on the same team—and have shared so many beautiful lessons and experiences together. Everything is new when you're a first-time parent! And this new dynamic of three definitely threw us for a loop—I wasn't used to sharing your attention with someone else, and I wasn't used to sharing my attention with someone other than you.

It took a few years to hit our stride. I think maybe we never had big things to disagree on before we became parents. It threw me off to be anything but harmonious with you. But just like we said we would on that gorgeous September wedding day, we found our way back. We stayed on each other's team.

And then I got pregnant again.

We were planning a huge life change already— moving across the country to start anew, restart your business and make a new future. I didn't have an easy pregnancy this time. And generally, for many reasons, life seemed harder than ever.

Our daughter was born and it didn't take long for postpartum depression to steal me away, for far longer than I should have allowed it to. I was scared to get the help I needed and I let it get the best of me. I'm truly sorry for that. I'm mostly sorry that I sometimes let it get the best of us.

It's easy to love a partner when it's just the two of you. Our priorities were never tested then—you were at the top of my to-do list, and I was at the top of yours. But—funny thing—this whole parenting thing seemed to make life a little more complex. And when your kids are little, and completely dependent upon you, there are many days when there just isn't much left over for anything or anyone else.

Babe, we're in it right now. Really in it. These are the parenting trenches. The baby years. These years can make or break us. And can I be so bold as to say: I think they're making us.

They're making us learn how to communicate better. How to find common ground when we disagree about real stuff, like the ways we want to raise our children. We're invested in not only the outcome but the short term effect. We're a team.

They're making us think about the future. Not just the fun stuff, but the difficult stuff like estate planning, life insurance, and college funds for the kids. They're making us challenge ourselves to provide our children with comfort and opportunities. We've always worked hard but the stakes have never been this high.

You know I'm the optimist, the dreamer, while you consider yourself the realist—but I think we can agree on this: going through some of the tough stuff with you by my side has shown me that we are stronger than the tough stuff. We can get through it. We can get through anything. As long as we hold on to each other.

Motherhood transformed me. Fatherhood transformed you. And having kids completely transformed our marriage. We'll never be who we were on our wedding day again.

Time marches forward—only forward. I miss the carefree version of "us", but I love this version even more. Because we know what we're made of now, and in so many ways we didn't before.

I'm sure that in our lifetime, many more obstacles will arise that will transform our marriage. But I've never been more confident that whatever may be, we'll find a way through it—together.

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Baking Christmas cookies together is a family tradition for many, but the Centers for Disease Control is warning parents that if your recipe contains raw flour or raw eggs, you really shouldn't sneak a bite before it is cooked, and neither should your kids.

The CDC is warning people not to eat raw cookie dough, cake mix or bread as we head into prime baking season.

The agency acknowledges the appeal of a spoonful of chocolate chip goodness but asks that we "steer clear of this temptation—eating or tasting unbaked products that are intended to be cooked, such as dough or batter, can make you sick."

Salmonella from raw eggs is, of course, a concern, and so is the raw flour. According to the CDC, flour needs to be cooked in order to kill germs like E.Coli. That's why the CDC is asking parents to "say no to raw dough," not just for eating but even for playing with.

"Children can get sick from handling or eating raw dough used for crafts or play clay, too," the CDC posted on its website.

On the Food and Drug Administration's website, that agency advises that "even though there are websites devoted to 'flour crafts,' don't give your kids raw dough or baking mixes that contain flour to play with." Health Canada also states that raw flour should not be used in children's play-dough.

The warnings follow a 2016 E.coli outbreak linked to contaminated raw flour. Dozens of people got sick that year, and a post-outbreak report notes that "state investigators identified three ill children who had been exposed to raw flour at restaurants in Maryland, Virginia, and Texas. Restaurant staff had given them raw dough to play with while they waited for their food to be served."

The CDC worries that with flour's long shelf life, products recalled during the 2016 outbreak may still be in people's pantries (although the CDC notes that any raw flour—recalled or otherwise—should not be consumed).

If your kids do have flour-based play dough, don't worry.

Some parents are still choosing to use flour-based craft dough to make Christmas ornaments or other crafts this holiday season and are reducing the risks by A) making sure the kids aren't eating their art, and B) thoroughly washing little hands, work surfaces, and utensils when the dough play is over.

Other parents are choosing other types of craft clay over flour-based dough.


During the 2016 outbreak, the FDA called for Americans to abstain from raw cookie dough, an approach Slate called "unrealistic and alarmist," noting that "the vast, vast majority of people who consume or touch uncooked flour do not contract E. coli or any other infection."

Two years ago, 63 Americans were made sick by E. coli infections linked to raw flour, according to the CDC. We don't know exactly how many Americans ate a spoonful of cookie dough or played with homemade play dough that year, but we do know that more than 319 million Americans did not get sick because of raw flour.

Are there risks associated with handling and consuming raw flour? Yes, absolutely, but it's not something to panic over.

Bottom line: Don't let your kids eat raw dough when they're helping you bake cookies for Santa, and be mindful of raw flour when choosing crafts for kids.

(And if you have just got to get your raw cookie dough fix, the CDC notes that cookie dough flavored ice cream is totally safe as it "contains dough that has been treated to kill harmful bacteria." Sounds like mama's getting Ben & Jerry's tonight.)

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