Cardboard City

The Play Sanctuary, a segment of Southwestern Child Development Commission, gives children a chance at creative play and to build their developing brains.

By Beth Lawrence


There is a running joke among parents about buying a child a gift and the child ends up playing with the box.

There is a reason for that, according to a local group who organizes events for children to play with cardboard boxes.

“That’s because the box has no agenda,” said Sara Stahlman, co-founder of The Play Sanctuary. “It’s wide open to whatever whims the child has for it. It can be a spaceship, a fort, a hat – or all of the above.”

The Play Sanctuary, a segment of Southwestern Child Development Commission, will hold its fourth annual Cardboard City play event in Webster this month.

The projects give children a chance to explore the worlds that can be found inside a cardboard box and are only limited by children’s imaginations.

Cardboard City serves several purposes beyond fun. Allowing children to guide themselves in recreation and to figure out creative ways to use basic materials in play is important to the developing brain, Stahlman said.

During free play, without adult guidance, children can decide what tasks to take on and how quickly they absorb skills learned from the tasks. They develop social skills, problem solving, self control and creative thinking when allowed to play on their own.

There is another boon to free play.

“Kids who are given lots of opportunity for child-directed play also see health benefits including better moods, less anxiety and depression, decreased ADHD, improved fine and gross motor skills, increased empathy, decreased narcissism and higher emotional literacy,” Stahlman said. “Kids today have more of their day directed by adults than ever before. Schools have less and less time allocated to free play/recess, most kids leave school for adult-led after school activities, and devices designed by adults are many kids’ play of choice.”

Old fashioned free time to play and explore is still crucial to the developing child.

“Fort building, tree climbing, sandlot baseball games – which many of us did with the added bonus of minimal supervision – have incredible cognitive and social benefits,” Stahlman said.

For these reasons The Play Sanctuary does not plan activities or projects during Cardboard City events. The group provides boxes of all shapes and sizes and gives children room to feed their imaginations turning the boxes into anything. Attendants will have box-cutters to assist with cutting flaps for doors or spaceship portals, and some art materials are available to decorate inventions.

Families can even take home a souvenir.

“We will have a photo printer available so kids can take an image of their creation home with them,” Stahlman said.

Children must be accompanied by an adult, and caregivers are encouraged to join the fun, but with a caveat. Let the child guide the craft project and use his or her imagination while the adult acts as an assistant.

The Play Sanctuary also encourages adults to socialize amongst themselves.

“Support the children of the community, and to take some time to build on their own,” Stahlman said. “We can all benefit from a bit more creative and community time.”

The event is Jan. 18 from 9 a.m. until noon at the Jackson County Family Resource Center gymnasium (old Webster School) at 1528 Webster Road. It is open to all ages.

The group also lists family-friendly activities in the region on its website:

The Play Sanctuary is a nonprofit whose mission “is to create nurturing play spaces to support WNC’s capacity for health, wellbeing and connection.” It is financed by grants and donations.

“We would love to offer more pop-up adventure play events to the community, but in order to do so, we need more resources, of either time or money,” Stahlman said.

For more information or to volunteer, email