The best toys are the ones derived from kids’ imaginations.

My grandchildren, like most kids these days, have all kinds of toys and games.

Every birthday and at Christmas, they get more. Some they play with; some they seldom, if ever, touch. Some end up broken within a few days.

Many of those toys look really fun when they are advertised with animation on television. Most, however, never live up to their boob-tube expectations.

For the past several months, my grandchildren, who range in age from 2–8, have been having more fun with cardboard boxes than all the expensive toys in their playroom.

My grandson, the oldest of the grandchildren, has taken a number of boxes and, with the help of his sisters and his cousin, built a house with a tower. He has also constructed a car, again using cardboard boxes, tape and plenty of imagination.

These creations occupy those kids for hours at a time, always allowing them to use their imagination. They are fun to watch.

In some ways, I suppose the world hasn’t changed. When I was a child, I got as much fun from playing with a cardboard box than I did from any toy I ever had.

It was the same with my children. They would take boxes that appliances came in and create houses and forts, all complete with windows and doors. Like my grandson, they could take cardboard destined to be thrown away and turn it into their own special world. Imagination was the key that opened the door to that world.

When I was a child I had a farm set, one with a barn, all kinds of animals and even a little man on a tractor. That toy was a big seller for at least four generations and is probably still on the market today.

The problem was that it limited my imagination. It did not have enough cows and pigs and chickens to suit me. I wanted a big farm, one with plenty of animals. So I created my own operation on a piece of bare ground out behind the house.

There in the dirt, I used sticks to build fences and outbuildings. In some imaginary fields, I used rocks of a specific color to represent cattle. Other kinds of rocks became pigs in my hog pen, chickens in my hen house and horses in my imaginary barn.

In other “fields,” I used a stick to scratch furrows to represent plowed ground and stick fence lines were built to keep my stock out of my imaginary roads.

Like my grandkids with their boxes, I played this imaginary farm game for hours on end, always creating, always using my imagination. And when the rains came and washed away my work, I would start all over again, creating my imaginary world in a different way.

This farm game cost absolutely nothing to play. My fields were limited only by the number of sticks I could collect for fences and my animals limited only by the number of rocks I could find.

When I was about 10 years old, I created my own horse. Out back there was an old apple tree whose trunk went up about three feet and then grew parallel to the ground for about three feet before rising into the air.

I took an old TV tray (most have probably forgotten they even existed) and bent it so it curved to make a saddle and then nailed it to the tree trunk. On either side of the “saddle,” I cut small nail holes and, using wire, attached old metal stirrups I had found in my great-grandfather’s barn. After adding a piece of string for a bridle, I had my own horse. It cost me nothing.

As I mentioned in last week’s column, we would use poke berry juice for war paint when we played cowboys and Indians, something a buddy and I did almost every Saturday morning.

Near my friend’s sister’s house, there was a field with large outcroppings of granite boulders around which we would ride our imaginary horses to the hideouts we had created and stage imaginary gun battles. We had great fun.

The point here is that I hardly remember any of the store-bought toys I had as a child, but those I created will forever linger in my mind.

Given the opportunity, kids will create their own toys using their surroundings and their minds.

A big cardboard box, a bent apple tree or a granite boulder can make for cheap entertainment for a child with a vivid imagination.

Donnie Johnston:

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