Posted in Columns

How An Empty Box Gets Filled…With Dreams

The box: exciting when it’s full of last week’s eBay find or Christmas presents; dull when empty; and annoying when it’s one of hundreds to be broken down for recycling – a less-than-exciting task for most.

But that’s only if you’re boxed into a certain way of thinking. There is much more to a simple cardboard container.

Ask kids. Every kid in the room will head for the empty box in the corner.
It doesn’t matter whether the box is brand new or if it has seen better days – perhaps months ago. And it doesn’t matter whether the kids are big or little.

That box is a portal to their imaginations.

Sunshine Girl, our delightful almost-2-year-old neighbor, came to visit one day. We don’t have a lot of toys in our house anymore – sadly – because our kids our grown and our grandkids live 5,000 miles away.

I hunted for and found key items – blocks, books and a doll or two, and brought them up from their basement resting place in a cardboard box so “Sunny” would have something to play with while we visited with her parents.

She immediately dumped the toys and plunked her tiny self into the box, rocking back and forth and singing a sweet toddler song that had something to do with riding in her daddy’s boat and going fishing.

The box is also a bed for her “babies,” a house for various stuffed animals unearthed from their lower level lairs and storage for the kid stuff when Sunny goes home.

About 17 years ago, similar magic occurred in my son’s kindergarten class. I walked into the room where the teacher sat at her desk – and wondered where the kids were.

She motioned to her right. They were inside a giant box at the other end of the room. Every kid in the class!

“I get a big box from the furniture store in town every year for my class,” the teacher told me.

That day, the box morphed into a castle. Dragons, knights, princes and princesses created a medieval world under the watchful eye – and bossy voice – of a blond young lady, apparently the queen.

Months later, the box was more round than square, the result of a particularly wild pirate escapade. (Boxes seem to make excellent boats – unless, of course, the box is placed in real water.) One kid – probably my son – drew a primitive skull-and-crossbones in heavy black marker over the rainbows, flowers, windows, doors and other decorations from prior adventures.

I thought of how years before, my sister and I had the best box.


My parents purchased a velvety chair that had an exceptionally tall back – we referred to it for the following decades as the “queen’s chair” (partly because it was my mom’s chair.) Two men delivered and unpacked the chair, then placed it in our living room according to my mother’s wishes.

Meanwhile, my sister and I eyeballed the box that moments before contained the chair. The box was amazing, a sort of box-on-a-box, with one end big enough to fit the seat and legs part of the chair (and two excited little girls.) The other end was narrow, like the back of the chair.

The men prepared to break down the box and take it away. I begged my mother to let us keep it, please! Please, mommy!

She said yes, I suspect for the same reason the kindergarten teacher made sure her class had a box to play with every year. Keeping the box would mean hours of peace for my mother while my sister and I determined how to best use it.

That didn’t matter to us – we had the best box ever and we would make it into something WONDERFUL!

First, it was a house with a secret passage. Mom cut windows in the sides and we hung scraps of fabric fastened with paperclips inside as curtains. We furnished our house with an assortment of dishes, pillows, blankets and whatnot to make it a home. We begged mom to let us sleep in our house. She probably let us.

We played with that box for weeks, maybe months. The house eventually morphed into a puppet theater, with mom’s help cutting bigger holes for the “stage.”

When the box’s useful life was served – or maybe when my parents were tired of moving it every time they cleaned our play area, we dragged it outside. We turned it sideways, climbed inside, took deep breaths for courage and began rolling across our yard and down the small hill, picking up speed, imagining a trip over Niagara Falls – until the box’s sides split and we lay on the grass screaming with laughter.

Boxed in? Not kids. Give them an empty cardboard container and they’ll fill it with dreams.



I'm a writer, editor, photographer and artist living in rural Southeastern Wisconsin. I grew up in Chicago, made my way to the deep woods of Northern Minnesota and then landed here among the cornfields and cows. It's quite simply my happy place.

One thought on “How An Empty Box Gets Filled…With Dreams

  1. I love boxes – although refrigerator boxes are my favorite, I was always excited if any box was big enough to crawl into.
    Thanks for bringing the memories back!!! Janet


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