Like peanut butter and jelly or Bert and Ernie, toddlers and cardboard boxes just seem to go together. From the perfect hiding spot to a fabulous fort, boxes have endless play potential.

But it’s not just big boxes that inspire all the fun! With a little creativity, you can transform shoe boxes, cardboard toilet paper and paper towel tubes, and even pizza boxes into toys your little one will love. At the same time, you’ll be modeling and encouraging creative thinking and imaginative play.

Our DIY Toddler Play Props series features dozens of ideas for all kinds of two-in-one, make-and-play activities. Let’s get started with shoe boxes!

Shoe box arts and craft projects


Create and decorate a colorful, no-cleaning-required, cardboard aquarium with your kiddo!

  • Cut five or six fish-shaped figures and three or four kelp shapes out of the top of a shoe box and discard any scrap (heavy construction paper or tagboard works fine if your box lid isn’t big enough).
  • Let your toddler paint the fish and kelp with whatever colors they like using a large brush, sponge, or even their fingers.
  • While they’re painting, cut a piece of blue construction paper to fit the bottom of your box. This will be the back wall of your aquarium.
  • While the pieces are drying, draw a few shells and sea stars on the bottom of your “tank” (an inside long wall, since the box is on its side) and let them color them in with crayons or markers.
  • Glue the kelp strips and a few of the fish to the blue background; punch a small hole in the remaining fish, string them with yarn, and staple the yarn to the top inside panel of the open shoe box to complete your aquarium.


Sensory Box

Kids use their senses to learn about the world, including their sense of touch. You can create a simple, at-home, sensory station using a cardboard box!

Cut a hand-sized hole in the center of the lid of an old shoe box and fill it with objects that are tactically satisfying, like cotton balls, sandpaper, nail brushes, and bean bags. Tape the lid in place and have your child to reach inside and describe what they’re feeling, using vocabulary like soft, hard, rough, and smooth. Ask your child to remove the object they’re holding, name it, and talk a bit about it. Consider including pairs of things to see if your child can find the match to the one in her hand using only her sense of touch.

Swap out the contents of your box often to keep your child engaged.

Car Wash

Kids can take their own toy cars through their very own cardboard car wash! Simply place the bottom of a shoe box upside down and cut a toy-car sized entrance and exit out of each end and a rectangular window on one side. Cut and glue dangling strips of construction paper to the exit end for an extra-realistic touch.

Stuffed Animal Bus

Get ready for the ultimate ride with this creative shoe box craft!

  • Start by cutting two small holes in the short end of the bottom part of a shoe box, placing the lid on the box, and taping around the edges of to ensure it won’t come off.
  • Let your little one paint the entire box yellow using a large brush or sponge and washable tempera paint.
  • When the paint is dry, use a black marker to add windows, doors, and wheels.
  • Loop some yarn or a shoelace through the holes in the front of the box, cut a few holes in the top for your little one’s plush passengers, and let the driver drag his bus around the room.

If your toddler loves this idea, you may want to try making a train to accommodate more passengers by tying several open shoe boxes together or laying masking tape “roads” around the room for a bit of extra fun.

Watch for the next post in our DIY Toddler Play Props series – What You Can Make With a… Shipping Box! In the meantime, keep getting creative with those shoe boxes and don’t forget that you can also combine materials to create even cooler things, like an elevated toy car parking lot (shoe box lid with cardboard ramp and TP roll columns) or a crazy crocodile (cardboard mouth and tail with egg carton body and TP tube legs, painted green, of course). With a little imagination you can reuse lots of materials and remember… the creating is half the fun!