This everyday item is a powerhouse for pretend play

Toddler sitting in a cardboard box reading on a blanket

Cardboard is inexpensive, plentiful, and just right for a 2-year-old getting into new kinds of pretend play. If you have some extra lying around, there are all kinds of fun ways to make use of it.

Here are four cardboard activities for your 2-year-old:

Free coloring inside a big box

Toddler drawing on the side of a cardboard box with a marker
In photo: Anywhere Art Kit With Washable Tempera Paintsticks from The Helper Play Kit

There’s a lot of “no” in a 2-year-old’s life. Giving your child permission to do the things they aren’t typically allowed to do, like drawing on walls, ceilings, and floors, lets them experiment without restrictions (or property damage 😉).

  • The next time you get a large package in the mail, save the box (the bigger the better).
  • Set it up so your child can walk, crawl, or climb in easily, and explain that this is a special place where they can draw on all the surfaces.
  • The washable, fast-dry paintsticks in The Helper Play Kit are ideal for drawing on cardboard: they work like markers, but with the color saturation of paint. 
  • Consider letting your child have some clothes-free time so they can really get messy 🙃

Fairy light playhouse

Toddler sitting in a cardboard box that has string lights at the top

Another great use for a large cardboard box is to make a fort, which becomes a wonderful place for your child to explore, play pretend, and experiment with light. This makeshift playhouse becomes even more magical when you poke “fairy lights” through the roof. 

If you don’t have a large box, you can still use a single sheet of cardboard for the lights: place it up high in a room (propped up across the tops of two chairs, for example).

  • Get out some string lights—preferably ones with batteries so you don’t need to plug them in—then poke holes in the “roof” and stick the lights through. 
  • Set up the box so your child can easily crawl in and consider cutting a flap they can use as a door. It’s nice to be able to make it dark inside, but make sure your child can easily get in and out.
  • Make the space even more inviting by hanging up a scarf or other fabric as a curtain, putting a pillow down, and adding books, toys, and other comfort items.
Toddler using the Lovevery flashlight against a wall
In photo: Really Real Flashlight from The Realist Play Kit
  • You can show them how to turn the lights on and off, and offer them a flashlight to play with (don’t forget Flashlight Rule #1: we never shine it at anyone’s face)

Lacing and threading with cardboard

Young child stringing yarn through cardboard

Lacing and threading are great fine-motor activities that encourage precision and resilience—using colorful yarn and fun shapes provides a great opportunity for your child to get creative. This is a project that older siblings, friends, and even adults can easily join in on, but it also lends itself well to independent play.

  • Gather some used cardboard, scissors, a ball of yarn (or string), a hole punch, and some tape. This activity is a great way to recycle cereal boxes, as the cardboard is thin and there are images to cut out.
  • Cut the cardboard into fun shapes and punch holes along their perimeters. You can use simple geometric shapes like triangles, circles, and squares, or get creative with flowers, trees, or butterflies. Anything works. 
  • Cut several lengths of yarn—two feet is about right—and consider taping the ends (like a shoelace) for easier lacing; this is called an aglet 🤓
  • Show your child how to thread the aglet through a hole and let them “sew” freely. If they are up for a challenge, you can teach them how to lace along the perimeter of a shape.

Cardboard Building Pieces

Young child putting together pieces of cardboard

As your child starts to work with more complex puzzles and build structures requiring more refined fine motor skills, these simple cardboard squares make ideal building pieces. This works with any type of cardboard or card stock.

  • Cut your cardboard into small squares, circles, and triangles—3” x 3” works well for the squares. Cut a small slit about ½ inch long into each side.
  • Show your child how to join the pieces by sliding them together where the slits are.
  • Your child can build with the pieces in a freeform way, or you can give them a specific challenge, like building the longest structure they can. For pattern recognition practice, encourage your child to build a structure that alternates between the different shapes you’ve given them (for example, triangle, square, triangle, square).


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Posted in: 3-year-old, 34 - 36 Months, Pretend Play, Playtime and Activities, Imaginative Play, Child Development, Playtime & Activities

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