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Kids Have Fun Thinking Inside the Box

A good reminder to parents that kids can have fun without fancy toys.

Patty Fisher
Mercury News
September 23, 2009

It looked like a frenetic moving day at the Children's Discovery Museum.

Empty cardboard boxes littered a corner of the first floor exhibit space, piled up or strewed around as if someone had just finished unpacking them.

But what looked like the discarded packaging for a new exhibit was actually the exhibit itself.

It's called Box City, and its accidental success proves that when it comes to toys, one kid's trash is another kid's castle. Or doll crib. Or submarine.

"One of my fondest childhood memories is when we got a new refrigerator and my dad gave me the box," said museum staffer Ronnie Bogle, who set up Box City. "For two weeks that thing went from being a house to a rocket ship to a train to a car."

Bogle found a way to bring that happy memory to life last month when the museum packed up its popular "Out on a Limb" nature exhibit and shipped it off to tour children's museums across the United States and Canada. Its next exhibit, "Children of Hangzhou," wasn't scheduled to arrive until October.

So, rather than see 1,200 square feet of prime exhibit space sit empty for a month, Bogle grabbed the big boxes that the museum's new recycling bins had been shipped in and put them out to see what the young visitors would do. In no time, kids were climbing around and having a ball.

"It sort of evolved from there," he said.

The staff collected more boxes to add to the fun. They flattened some of them,
tacked them to the walls and set out bins full of crayons so kids could draw on the "wallpaper." Then came colored masking tape and safety scissors. Before long, new creations began to take shape. Creatures, skyscrapers with lots of windows, a fort with a "no girls allowed" sign.

When I stopped by last week, kids were having as much fun in Box City as in the elaborate water play exhibit next door. Six-year-old Ariana Santos had boxes on her legs, arms and tummy, and one over her head with eye holes cut in it. "I'm a robot," she said proudly. Ariana's mom, Virginia Meraza-Santos, snapped photos with her cell phone.

"This is just like Christmas morning," she said. "You can spend whatever money you want on toys, and all they want to play with is the boxes."

As kids knocked over piles of packing boxes, 2-year-old Cole Banman peered out from inside a big toilet-paper carton.

"I'm a sneaky box," he said. Then he closed the lid and disappeared.

It was reassuring to see that kids' imaginations are surviving despite the best efforts of toy designers and busy parents to make creativity obsolete. Who needs an imagination when video games create the adventure for you, when organized sports leave no time for just goofing around? Even Legos, once the stem cells of building blocks that left everything to the imagination, now come in specialized kits. Building a MagnaGuard Starfighter just like in "Star Wars" requires as much creativity as painting by number.

Box City also is an apt metaphor for tough times in the valley. Who needs to rent a bounce house for the birthday party? Just put out some cardboard.

The last time I visited the Children's Discovery Museum was four years ago, for the opening of its special area for toddlers and preschoolers, called the Wonder Cabinet. That creation took months to build and cost $1 million. Ah, those were the days.

These days the museum, like every other arts organization, is hurting. It had to cut its budget 5 percent and is renting out its exhibits, such as "Out on a Limb," to make ends meet.

Appropriately, the entire budget for Box City amounted to some crayons and a couple of rolls of masking tape.

Marketing manager Autumn Gutierrez said the exhibit is a good reminder to parents that kids can have fun without fancy toys. Museum staffers learn that lesson every day.

"The kids really love our high-tech exhibits," she said. "But then the window washer comes along, and they are just as excited by that."





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