I have been super lucky to have lived in quite a few cities all over the US. Winter always makes me miss California’s beautifully sunny beaches, but when spring is so close you can taste it, I long for Chicago’s neverending spring surprises. One of my favorite parts of spring is gardening, and one of the best-kept secrets of the big cities I’ve lived in is their rooftop green oases. This was the time of year to buy pots and start planning our secret green getaways.
After pining for my old green city gardens, we were inspired to make our own little cardboard box city block. In addition to sprucing our neighborhood up with some cardboard trees and (actual) plants, we added tons of cool details and doodled stories to bring it to life. Like our cardboard toadstool gnome home or recycled play pet tank, it’s the details that make it special!
Our cardboard city block is a fun three-dimensional twist on the old drawing prompt, a fabulous STEAM-building activity, and a mixed media opportunity treasure trove. But most of all, it’s a special place created from bottom to top purely to let imaginations (little & big) run wild.
Want to take your city to the next level? Pair this with our DIY cardboard and paper city landscape backdrop project, make a fold-out secret garden for your neighborhood, or add a cardboard food truck!
To make your own cardboard box city neighborhood you’ll need:
- A few small to medium-sized cardboard boxes
- Eco-friendly kraft paper tape (I use this kind!) or packing tape
- Markers or other art supplies for decorating
- A Glue Stick
- An X-Acto knife, utility knife or utility scissors
- Paint and a stamp or foam brush for texture
- Our Neighborhood Architecture Printable Extension Pack
- Colorful Paper
- Real plants and a small jewelry or gift-sized box (for rooftop planters)
DIY Cardboard Box City Neighborhood Instructions:
- Turn a few boxes inside out to create the bases for your buildings
One of the things I wanted to do was try to make this project as eco-friendly as I could. Most of the cardboard boxes we receive are covered in stickers or printing, which can kind of kill the creative vibe.
Instead of covering them with more paper or paint, I discovered that it’s incredibly easy to just cut them apart, turn them inside out and use a strip of water-activated Kraft tape to put it back together. It’s much greener than recovering, 10 times faster, and creates a perfect blank canvas for creativity! The water-activated packaging tape is also REALLY easy to paint over (unlike clear plastic packing tape).
- Use a simple cardboard stamp to add a brick texture to your buildings
Inspired by the cool neighborhoods filled with old brick walkups in Chicago and New York, we decided to give these a little texture with a homemade stamp.
Using a few different colors of acrylic paint and a rectangular stamp (just a piece of cut foam glued to cardboard) we stamped out a simple brick pattern on our boxes. You can experiment with your own stamp shapes cut from old styrofoam, sponges, blocks…or anything to add your own textures!
- Arrange your buildings into a city block
Once the paint has dried, you can start playing with the arrangement of your boxes to see how you’d like to make them into buildings. This is a great opportunity to take a walk, go on a building hunt and make some notes about what you might like to include in your own city.
How are real buildings and neighborhoods arranged? What do the windows and doors look like? What interesting things do you see? Once your buildings are arranged, you may want to use a piece of packing tape or glue to secure them together.
- Add windows and doors
Once we had finished a little loose planning and playing around, we added some empty windows and doors that could be doodled in later. I made a little architecture pack filled with different sizes and styles that we chose from, but you can also draw your own set on construction paper with a ruler and black marker.
Once you’ve cut out your windows, you can try out different arrangements on the building and glue them on with a glue stick.
- Add some rooftop gardens with real or cardboard foliage
With spring on the way, we wanted to make sure we included some fresh, green rooftop gardens! We simply filled an old cardboard jewelry box with dirt, cut small clippings from our succulents and planted them in the box top and bottom.
Voila! Just like that, you have beautiful green rooftop planters! Succulents don’t need much water, so we didn’t line our boxes, but if you’re using a plant you’ll need to water, you can waterproof yours by pushing a square of tin foil or a sandwich bag in the bottom (coming up the sides) before filling with dirt.
- Add details to your cardboard city block
You have all the building basics done – now it’s time to start bringing it to life by adding all the details! From here on out, you can let your imagination run wild using different art mediums to tell fun visual stories and create the bits & pieces that will make your neighborhood your own!
Will it look like your own “real life” neighborhood, or will it be a wild imaginary place? Will you use lots of colors, or just a few? Are your buildings homes or businesses? Maybe there’s graffiti or a mural on the sides of one of your buildings, or little hidden doors, or surprises!
- Green up your city block with cardboard trees
We added a few simple cardboard trees, a street, some road signs, and a string of twinkly lights to ours. A piece of poster board makes a fantastic bright sky backdrop too!
- Finish by filling your cities’ windows, doors, and streets with doodles
Best way to bring this neighborhood to life? Fill it with doodles! You can color directly in the windows if you prefer, but I found the best way to do this was to trace the empty window spaces onto a few sheets of paper, then have the kids fill them in with drawings. We cut out around the doodles and used a tiny dab of glue to put them in our windows. Doing it this way allowed them to play around with where the drawings were and change them around. We just used a black marker to give it a cool graphic look, but you can use crayons, markers, pastels, or whatever you want!
One of the creative wonders of this project is that it is an ongoing imagination-powered play opportunity. Throughout the week hours of original art and play continued with random free doodles that we wanted to add around our buildings and on the street (we cut some L-shaped stands from paper and glued them to the back so we could stand up our pieces).
Like any cool neighborhood, it’s all in the details. Every single one of these drawings came with its own story, and somehow they were all woven together in this eclectic patio garden paradise. From the helpful bird closing the shade (“EVERYONE inside is TOO tired for sun right now”) to the puppy in search of the pile of just-baked cookies.
And what trendy neighborhood would be complete without the speed demon driver who’s late for school (based on a true story). ;-D Also, a panda! This was just as entertaining for me as it was for the kids, and I loved watching them put it together and listen to them creating this cardboard city of their own.