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Toddler Talk: Cardboard Boxes

Before you recycle that big cardboard box Amazon delivered, let your little one—and her imagination—transform it from paper to plaything. While we've all seen Pinterest photos of pink princess castles crafted from Frigidaire boxes and cardboard helicopters that are one AAA battery away from taking flight, you don't have to spend all that time and energy. Sometimes simple is better: A plain old box is the perfect blank canvas for your child's imagination.

Here are six easy ways to use a cardboard box to entertain your toddler for hours, or at least for enough time to check your email and grab a cup of coffee.

1. Things That Go Vroom

Who needs wheels when you have mommy power? Fold down the box lids, put your little one in the "driver's seat," and push or pull your screaming-with-laughter toddler all over the house. (This is a lot easier if you aren't on carpet!) Once you've had a bit of a workout, cop a squat and spin, spin, spin your tot until one (or both!) of you is dizzy. Once you're exhausted, you can always pull in front of the TV for a little drive-in Sesame Street action.

2. Go a Little Gaudí

Dig out your favorite arts and crafts—be it markers, paint or stickers—and go to town on the outside of the box. The bigger, the better—your little one will love creating colors and shapes as high as she can reach. It's fun for kids to explore being creative on all sides of the box (even the insides). Just be careful; exuberant coloring can veer off onto walls and windows. Thank the parenting gods for washable markers.

3. Fill 'Er Up

We all know toddlers love to fill and empty bottles, bowls, your purse, etc. But when was the last time you gave your tot a GIANT space to fill? Have your child help you fill the box with balls, balloons, favorite stuffed animals, or anything you like. (Heck, if your mother-in-law is on her way over, it's an easy way to clean the living room at the same time.) If your youngster is obsessed with counting, like mine is, you can practice the one-two-threes at the same time. And of course once the box is full you can grab your kiddo, tickle him and toss him in as well ... what small fry wouldn't want to take a toy bath?

4. All the World ... Er, Box ... Is a Stage

Cut out a large square shape and create the perfect stage for you to entertain your little ones ... or vice-versa. Puppets, Elmo dolls, and even the family dog can get in on the action. (Cats, at least in our household, are not recommended.) And letting older siblings star on "the stage" is a great way for your bigger kids to let their imaginations run wild while also entertaining their younger siblings.

5. Shape Up

If you've already got your X-Acto knife out, cut out circles, squares and triangles in different sizes and let your little one see which of her toys matches the shapes. Or create a book or mail slot, and let her "deliver" the mail or push her favorite books inside. It's great motor-skill development, and afterward she might love to cuddle inside the box with a blanket, a sippy cup and her favorite books.

6. You Can Never Go Wrong With a Cardboard Playhouse

It's an oldie but a goodie: Go ahead and cut out some windows and make a working door to instantly have an inexpensive, easy, but totally beloved playhouse. Bonus points if you can tape two big boxes together. Or get creative: Make a spaceship, tugboat, castle or train. The best part is you don't really need to decorate. Just plant the seed of what the box is and let your kids' imaginations bloom. By watching where they take a simple box, you'll find yourself having as much fun as your kids.

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