Trash Is Really Toys In Disguise

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
creative play
PeopleImages / iStock

We have Amazon Prime, and we abuse it. Every other day, the postal carrier delivers another delicious surprise for my husband and me: camping hammocks and dresses, USB cords and books. My children go ballistic. Not for the USB cords, but for what comes with it.

Amazon Prime stuff arrives in boxes, with poppable plastic air bags. These belong, by right of age, to the kids. They wait impatiently for us to slit down the black tape, remove whatever we ordered — which they find irrelevant — and hand off the packaging. We hope there are enough plastic air bags to go around. They set them on the stone floor, pump their arms, and leap. POP! They laugh and do it again until they’re gone.

Then we hand them the box, and they run away with it.

The box becomes, well, whatever they want the box to become that day. Maybe it’s a spaceship. Maybe it’s a car. Maybe it’s a bed, or a couch, or a racing dragon. They dump out their crayons and scrawl all over it, all three of them working hard together to make whatever the box demands. Then they drag out their other boxes, maybe recolor them, and start playing. They stay busy for at least an hour. Such is the magic of boxes.

My kids love trash. I don’t know why I bother to keep their toys when they’d rather play with the contents of my recycling bin. My kids have lots of toys, of course. Too many, I’d argue — I feel like my whole house is perpetually paved with toys. But they love trash the best. Amazon boxes are their favorite, but other thing suffice as well. I’ve seen them stack empty single-serving Jell-O cups, color on the back of cardboard, and use plastic cups for kitchen play.

Their second-favorite is anything they can use as a sword. They can hack a knife or claymore out of cardboard, but it’s far easier to use something already sword-shaped. We spent weeks of them beating each other with a dog-chewed back-scratcher. Chewed-up rulers work too (we have a puppy). So does a foam noodle, disintegrated from lying outside all winter.

Next to swords come whips. Any twine, rope, or even ribbon immediately becomes a whip, which makes us shout for them to use it in another room. They also make whips out of used 2-foot glowsticks, which make a satisfying whoosh when swung at speed. They also sometimes tie the twine onto a dog leash, giving it even more length and reach. We try to make them stop that. Finally, when they get sick of whipping things, they tie the rope to the top of their play structure and use it to mountain-climb up the slide. They use my husband’s robe tie for this too. It might as well be trash since he hasn’t used it for its intended purpose in over a year.

Old magazines are never used for their intended purpose. My husband has hoarded every National Geographic since the beginning of time, and my kids love cutting them apart and pasting them into collages. But they don’t discriminate. The current New Yorker, the Smithsonian, the local magazine, and the pizza advertisements earn the same treatment. I sort of hate when they do this, because I have to supervise scissors — we’ve had two separate hair-cutting incidents — and because little bits of paper flutter everywhere, and Mama’s the one who has to pick them up. But it’s art. I’ll put up with a lot for the sake of art.

The bathtub’s the epicenter of trash becoming treasure. They play with old plastic spoons. Every shampoo, conditioner, and soap bottle, once emptied, gets dropped to the tub floor, magically transformed into a pouring instrument. Dog-chewed plastic cups appear. They love the rare soda bottle. Sometimes we even cart in the empty Dawn bottles. These squirt, which make them especially prized. They have real tub toys, but I can’t remember the last time they played with them.

My kids love trash. From boxes to bottles, swords to whips, they’ll play with it. You could argue I’m letting my kids play with refuse and call social services. I figure it’s creative play since they’re making that trash what they want it to be, and using it according to the dictates of their imagination. I’d rather they play with trash than many of their toys. When they mess around with trash, their play is led by their own creativity. That’s the best way for play to be.

So my kids will go on waiting for Amazon boxes, and hacking up pizza flyers, and pouring bath water with shampoo bottles. It makes them happy. It stretches their brains. They’re probably my favorite toys they have. And that might be trash, but it’s the truth.

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