Frugal Fun With “Not A Box” – And Other Fun Objects

When people think about kids, they’ll usually think about toys and other such fun “stuff”. But kids, especially small kids, love playing with things you might not expect. Have you ever heard a parent complaining that they got their kid a brand new toy for Christmas, only to have them be more interested in playing with the box than the toy? Or perhaps it’s something you’ve seen yourself. Perhaps you’ve seen someone shaking their head as they tell you this, sighing about how silly kids are to enjoy the box more than the toy itself.

Well, no need to sigh and shake your head-use it to your advantage!

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Meet: Not A Box

Not A Box

One of my older kids favorite library books when they were little was a simple one called “Not A Box“. We took it out from the library over a dozen times, and each time the kids would beg to read it again and again. A few years ago we finally picked it up on Amazon as a Christmas gift, and although they had slightly outgrown it by then (they’re now 13 and 9), they still love the book and were excited to finally own it.

The premise of the book is simple – the main character (a rabbit) has a “not a box”. Because it’s a box, but it’s not a box. It’s a fire truck, a rocket ship, or something else that the rabbit is imagining. It’s a book I highly recommend to people with kids, to get them using their imagination and thinking creatively about the box.

You can apply the “Not a Box” principle to any object. This is “not a stick”, it’s a magic wand. It’s “Not a Pretzel Container”, it’s stackable blocks. Let’s not forget about “not a paper towel roll” – tape a few together, and it’s a sword!

This is “not a bunch of pretzel containers” stacked on top of “not a bunch of cardboard blocks from a tag sale” in the playroom where the toddler has just tornadoed through. In the background you’ll notice various “not a pretzel container” being used to hold small toys on the shelf.

The box my little guy is in above was decorated by his middle older brother, who was excited to make a “not a box” for his baby brother. Although of course the little guy has no idea what a “not a box” is, my middle son does. He remembers well how much he loved that book, and still plays with a large cardboard box we have in the living room despite being nine years old. It’s a refrigerator box given to us by my parents (yes, we give large interesting boxes away in my family), and it’s big enough to stand up in. Sometimes things will be put on top of the box. Other times it becomes a fort, a racecar, or a place to play video games. We have had other large boxes over the years that eventually get destroyed. No problem – there are always other boxes to be found.

Don’t Kids Need Real Toys?

Now I did write last week about how this isn’t necessarily a money saving strategy. After all, I’m not really saving money by making a paper towel tube sword if I wasn’t going to go out and buy a plastic sword.

Also, some parents may mistakenly believe kids “need” real toys. Oh, and new toys. Because used toys are somehow “icky” or not as much fun.

Parents, I can tell you right now that you are categorically wrong.

Mrs. Frugalwoods wrote about this a few months ago, talking about the myth of gross used things, and it really resonated with me. After all, I’ve been a mom now for over 13 years, to three different kids. We have many, many years of birthdays and Christmases under our belts. My kids have gotten piles of toys from both sides of the family over the years, and I’ve seen first hand just how long the new toys last vs. the old toys.

It’s the same amount of time. Believe it or not, kids will normally outgrow or tire of the things well before they wear out. I have come to regret many of the new toy or clothes purchases I’ve made for my kids over the years.

Also, how long do they play with stackable pretzel containers, fluff containers, peanut butter jars, and the like? Just as long as they play with expensive new stackable blocks. “New toys” hold small kids interest for a very short period of time. Better to have the “new toy” of the day be something you can recycle later, rather than something you picked up at the store because your kids were whining for it.

Putting these juice containers in a line is just as much fun as playing with an expensive new toy.

I actually get sad when I go to my favorite kids consignment shop, seeing all the clothes not worn and toys not played with. All the toys look brand new, and there’s an entire wall completely stuffed and overflowing with them. How can I think about buying some new plastic something or other, when there are so many near new toys in perfect condition, in need of a home?  The same is true with clothes. Would I rather get a new cheap outfit from Target that the little guy will outgrow in a few months, or a beautiful, never worn sweater from Janie and Jack for the same price that he’ll outgrow in a few months?

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I mean, look at this amazingly awesome pair of pajamas. Five dollars at my favorite kids consignment shop!

Teachable Moments

For me, this is both a frugality thing and a non-wasteful thing. I want to teach my kids that it’s part of their responsibility to take care of their money, but also to take care of the earth. Buying used – whether it’s toys, clothes, furniture, or video games – both saves money and keeps one object out of the landfills. Then when they’ve outgrown or tired of the object, since it was bought used it can be sold for about the same as it was purchased for.

I also use shopping used and using things around the house for fun as a lesson for my kids. When we’re at the consignment shop or the video game store, I’ll point how just how many used things they can pick up for the price of one new thing (wow, you can get three of those toys for the price of one new one!). My kids have learned that we should always check used book stores, thrift stores, eBay, and consignment shops for things we need or things they want to buy with their allowance. Only after checking those sources will we consider buying new.

And for things around the house, we’ll talk about how much fun they have in “not a box”, and how it’s fun to use our imagination. They can use anything we might recycle to create with – my middle son once made a ghost from the Mario video game series out of an old milk jug! They have free creative reign over anything that’s going to be recycled, which they love.

How about you – do your kids have any “not a box” around the house? How do you encourage your kids to use their imaginations? Do you show them how buying used saves both money and natural resources? Let me know in the comments.

Want to learn more about teaching kids about money? Check out this great page with my top articles and resources I’ve found from around the web.

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24 thoughts on “Frugal Fun With “Not A Box” – And Other Fun Objects”

  1. makingyourmoneymatter

    I’m so blessed with kids that have great imaginations. It saves a lot of money and space. One thing my kids love to do is books to build cities (by opening the pages to make them stand up). Their “not a book” towns can fill a whole room.

  2. Could not agree with you more! Kids do great playing with things around the house. I can blow up a couple of balloons and throw a couple of empty boxes in the living room and maybe a spatula or two and they are good to go for at least a couple of hours. whereas, the toys in their rooms just sit there collecting dust.

    1. It’s so true! My boys love playing with stuff around the house, especially when they were small. Heck, they all play with the giant boxes still! I think those are fun no matter what your age is

  3. Right after Christmas, some folks in a neighboring apartment set several boxes of toys by the dumpster, along with a large kitchen playset. We used them to create a little playroom at Nanny’s house for our 21-month old niece. While she does play with the kitchen and a variety of plastic balls, her favorite thing is still the drinking coaster set that Nanny (her grandmother) keeps on the coffee table. She’ll take the coasters out and put them back in over and over again. It’s cute to watch how she concentrates on getting the coasters back in the holder only to take them out again one by one.

  4. Never heard of the “Not a box” before. Its so true though. If we teach our kids to use their imagination instead of always plopping them in front of the tv, perhaps the innovative minds of the future that companies are always seeking would be more readily available. Great perspective.

  5. Oh, gosh, this brings back such fond memories. When I was young (10-12 years old), my friends and I would commandeer a large box from an appliance delivery, tip the box over and crawl inside, and then have all the little kids (5-7 years old) jump on the box. We would scream like their assaults were causing bodily harm, and they would laugh with delight thinking they were hurting us. It was such great, innocent fun. And all from a cardboard box. Thanks for this wonderful post, CMO. You made my day.

  6. We had such a lot of ‘not a box’ fun when our (now grown) boys were small, and other large containers such as the wicker laundry basket…. The one toy though, that was really well used was Lego. Much of ours was bought at jumble sales, passed from other children, later given away etc. Last summer, we had a party, I knew 3 boys aged 5-10, would be coming. They didn’t know each other, and everyone else was adult. So I retrieved a load of Lego from the loft. Instant bonding. I then sent them each home with a box of it. Delighted kids even in this electronic age.

    1. Oh my boys love their Legos! That’s been the number one gift they’ve requested for the past 5 or more years. Every birthday and Christmas, Lego is on the list. They’ve amassed quite a few over the years.

  7. Dollar Habits

    This is a great post, Liz. Our oldest is 3 and his imagination and creativity are really starting to develop and become more evident. It is so much fun to watch him play and hear the stuff he comes up with. He has plenty of toys (actually, too many), but some of his favorites are kitchen utensils and a laundry basket. Balloons and cardboard boxes are items he is quite fond of. I love your teachable moments. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Yes they love all those non real toys the best! When I’m busy baking sometimes I’ll put a little flour in a bowl with a spoon, and give it to my almost two year old. It keeps him busy for a long time! 🙂

  8. I remember my nieces and nephews playing with the Tupperware. There would be toys all over the house but they loved the cabinet with the plastic containers and the wooden spoons!

  9. You raise a great point here. New Lego kits cost a small fortune, yet eBay is full of people selling used Lego by the kilogram for next to nothing.

    Kids don’t care, the great thing about Lego is the only limit is their imagination… well that and the huge benefit building (as opposed to playing with already assembled models) Lego provides for developing their fine motor skills.

  10. This applies to adults as well as children. I bought my mother’s Christmas gift from Craigslist last year. She wanted a new desk chair that rolled and swiveled. I scoured Craigslist and found an office that was closing and liquidating the furniture. Scooped up a great chair for $30, 40% less than the least expensive brand new option. She loved it! Craigslist also got me an Ethan Allen sofa bed for my guest room for only $110, which included delivery and tip. Now, whenever I want something pricey, I always check Craigslist first to see if someone is selling a perfectly good one at a fraction of the cost. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

    1. Awesome! I’ve often found that when buying secondhand, you can get better quality for a lower price than buying new.

  11. It’s true – the best part about a cardboard box as a “new toy” is that it’s easily recycled and out of your house once it gets boring. We also made a cornhole toss game out of an old box and our son absolutely loved it – until he completely forgot about it. I’m feeling pretty darn good about my decision not to buy him one instead 😉

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