How to Build a Playhouse With Spare Cardboard Boxes
Do you have memories of a cool fort or a playhouse you made with your mom or dad?
Want to share the same fun with your own kids without much effort?
In this article, I’ll show you how easy it is to make a playhouse of any size, using nothing more than recycled cardboard and some tape.
Why Build a Playhouse?
You can give your kids a place to call their own!
A place where imaginations will soar, adventures will be had or maybe just some quiet alone-time will be enjoyed.
Maybe your children love copying the things you do at home—playing in a kitchen, putting dolly to bed and cleaning the house. Maybe they’d like to fly to the moon in their very own rocket ship. Perhaps they’d like a barn where all of their stuffed animals can live.
Wherever your children’s interests lie, they will love to make and decorate a cardboard house that will allow their imaginations to run wild.
The British name for a playhouse is a “Wendy House,” named after a tent-like structure that the lost boys built for Wendy Darling in J.M. Barrie’s famous story, Peter Pan.
“Wendy House” was coined from this scene in Peter Pan. Watch the lost boys build theirs at 1:20.
The prop made for the stage play of Peter Pan in 1904 birthed the expression “Wendy House” for children’s playhouses thereafter. Barrie is also credited with popularizing the name Wendy, after he befriended his friend’s daughter who referred to him as her “friendy-wendy.”
Whether you call it a Wendy House, a playhouse or a fort, if your children are like mine they’ll love to build one of their own from cardboard. The only drawback? Trying to get them to stop playing and eat!
Like the original Wendy House prop in the stage play, this one is easy and quick to erect.
So gather your equipment, clear some floor space and let’s get going. First, you need to find cardboard, and lots of it!
#1: Scavenge for Cardboard
Corrugated cardboard is the ideal material for your fort. It’s easy to cut, fold, stick, draw on and decorate. Cardboard is also free (or very cheap) and readily available. Using cardboard to make a playhouse is a great way to recycle.
The fun begins with the scavenging. The more cardboard you gather, the bigger you can build your Wendy House. There are lots of places to look for cardboard; just make sure to only gather clean, dry boxes.
Employ your little helpers in any of these seven strategies to scavenge for cardboard for your playhouse.
Resource #1: Empty boxes. Look around your house or office and gather all the empty boxes that you’ve been saving. You know the ones: the box that your PC came in, or speakers or the TV. You’ve probably been saving them in case you need to return the item for a refund or sell it on eBay. Well, you don’t really need those empty boxes. Have fun with them instead. The box from a flat screen TV could be an awesome roof!
Resource #2: Boxes of junk. You have a loft or a garage or a basement full of junk, don’t you? Be honest—we all do. Go find a box full of junk, empty it out and take the box. This is a great opportunity to de-clutter. Throw the junk away. You’ll have less junk, more space and more fun. It’s an instant winner!
Resource #3: Supermarket or club store. You can ask for cardboard at the supermarket or club store. They have loads to get rid of and are usually more than happy to serve it up to you. An added bonus is that they may have already flattened the boxes! Just be cautious of fruit boxes as they may be contaminated with moisture or smells.
Resource #4: The office. Do you work in an office? Look in the supply room or near the copier. I guarantee you’ll find cardboard. All of the paper used to make photocopies and printouts comes in boxes that your company would probably be happy to get rid of.
Resource #5: Other businesses. If you work in a retail or manufacturing environment, or even a restaurant, then you’ve probably got access to loads more cardboard. Look for the boxes that their inventory or materials came in. I’m sure they’ll be delighted to fix you up.
Resource #6: Sources for cardboard tubes. For this project, cardboard tubes are the secret ingredient that gives your Wendy House strength and stability. To find them, seek out businesses that buy things on a roll: carpet fitters, printers, architects, etc. All have cardboard tubes and may be eager to get rid of them.
Resource #7: Raid the recycling. They say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. If you’re really stuck, hang out at the local incinerator or recycling center for five minutes. Or if you have curbside recycling service, ask your neighbors if you can take a peek inside the recycling bins on your street before they’re collected. Someone is bound to be dumping the box their new ‘something or other’ came in. All you need to do is ask for it.
Once you have your cardboard, flatten the boxes by cutting the tape that holds them together or pulling apart corners that have been adhered together.
Assess what you gathered so that you can see the full size and how you might use it.
#2: Frame Your House
The first task when you start to build is to gauge how tall and wide the house will be. If the house is to have a door, you want your child to fit through it! Make sure you have enough cardboard to cover the height, width and roof. Otherwise, plan on a smaller house.
Once you have established the height and floor plan, you can make the corners of the Wendy House.
Find four large pieces of similar length to make your corners. These should have fold lines and flaps from the original boxes.
Need a taller piece? Line up similar pieces of cardboard so that their original fold lines match. Overlap the ends slightly and tape them together, forming one long piece with a fold all the way up.
Fold the cardboard along the existing folds so that the inside is out. This will give a better surface on the outside for decorating later.
Use your tape to fix the end flaps together, creating a sturdy cardboard corner with a foot. Ask your little helpers to hold the corner in shape and help stick down the tape. They’ll like to feel that they’re an important part of the construction process.
#3: Add Strength With Cardboard Tubes
Cardboard tubes are the secret to a strong house. Attached to the corners, they provide extra support to make the playhouse more durable.
Find tubes the same height as your corners. You may need to cut down long tubes or tape shorter ones together. Helpfully, our cardboard tubes came in boxes of the same size as our children; about a yard (a meter) in length.
If you couldn’t get your hands on any tubes (or not enough), don’t worry. You can roll or fold your own tubes from flat cardboard and run tape along the length.
Tape tubes into the corners. These will help stiffen the frame so that windows and doors will not cause the house to fold in on itself.
#4: Attach Ceiling Beams
Ok, that’s Spanish for “good night,” not for “good notches.” But you need to cut good notches in each end of two more cardboard tubes. These will form the ceiling beams of your playhouse and help hold the whole thing together.
Use this photo as a guideline and cut notches in your ceiling beam tubes. (You should cut yours a little deeper than mine so that there’s more overlap between the crossbeam and the post. My notches were not so “bueno.”)
Have your kids help by holding the tube steady as you cut, but make sure an adult is the one to use the knife.
Place the tube across the two front corner posts and tape in place well.
Surprise—by adding the ceiling beam, you’ve created the opening for your front door!
Once you’ve taped your beam in place over the front of the house, repeat at the back on the other two corner posts.
#5: Create the Windows
Tape some flat cardboard in place between the corner posts on the sides and back of your house. These flat pieces should extend from the floor up to the bottom sill of your window.
The openings that remain above these new “walls” will form your windows.
Tape both the inside and outside. The window sills are where your children will lean looking out of the window, so make sure they’re good and strong or you’ll soon have another door!
Tape another piece of cardboard across the top of the window opening.
For an open window, use a small rectangle to form the window head.
To add a shutter, like ours, use cardboard that’s long enough to cover the entire opening—ceiling to window sill—and has a fold at the top for the shutter to open.
With either style, tape both inside and outside firmly. This will help stop the roof from spreading apart.
Repeat on the other sides of the house so you have three windows and one door.
#6: Raise the Roof
Use a large piece of cardboard for the roof, if you have one.
We did not have a large enough piece, so we needed to tape smaller boxes together end to end and all along the peak of the pitched roof.
Tape your roof to the front and back of your house (the sides with the cross beams).
You can see the Wendy House starting to take shape!
#7: Holey Gables
You’ll need some gables to fill in the ends of the roof and brace the structure.
To make the gables, all you have to do is tape the bottom of a flat piece of cardboard onto the top of your wall.
Take your knife and trim from the top down, following the pitch of the roof.
Then tape along the triangular gable edges to fix into position.
Do the gables have to be holey? No, we just ran short of the non-holey cardboard, but it adds a little interest!
What would you do with those holes? Perhaps they could become the start of a beautifully crafted stained glass window? Ask your kids what they think the holes could be. I’d love to hear their suggestions in the comments below.
#8: Curb Appeal
Find a flat piece of cardboard for the front door, cut it to size and tape it in place.
You’ll notice that our door opens inward. In retrospect, make sure to fit your door so that it opens outward. Your children will have more room inside. For some reason, our kids were opening it out anyway which meant the door soon fell off!
Nothing a bit more tape won’t sort out.
Congratulations! The structure is finished and now it’s time to draw on the main features of the house with a marker pen.
Customize the house to your children’s interests: make it a cottage, a spaceship, a castle, a barn or whatever they dream up.
My children are young and can only scribble, so I drew the features myself to give them a flavor for the decoration. If your children are a little older, they might prefer to decorate the house themselves.
Now is the time to move your playhouse outside if that’s where it’ll stay (and if it’s not already there).
The final step is to get the pens and paints out and let the children give their new house the full decorative treatment! Let their imaginations go wild.
Some Final Thoughts…
Making your own cardboard Wendy House is a great way to get your children involved in the thought process of designing and building a small house, the artistic decoration of the outside and the imagination of play with different themes for different games.
Why not give it a go? I guarantee your children will love it.
Our children have enjoyed playing with the Wendy House so much so that they didn’t want their breakfast!
What do you think? Get creative, come up with your own designs and decorations. I would absolutely love to see your playhouse, fort or Wendy House. Post your images and tell us about your creation in the comments below. It’ll be fantastic to see your designs!