Make: A Pretend Play Pet Tank from Recycled Supplies

Have you ever had a kid begging for a pet that kinda makes your skin crawl (I’m looking at you, snake)? Or been asked for a classroom pet, only to wonder how on earth you can fit another living thing into your already-busy teaching schedule? This fun pretend play pet tank project is here to save the day! Made from simple recycled materials, it combines art, design, research into animal habitats, simple construction, and nature collection into one lovely little classroom (or afternoon-at-home) project.

Press play for a quick preview of our own recycled cardboard box play pet tank!

In addition to being an imagination-building alternative to the real thing  (temporarily scratching that “I need a pet!” itch), this provides a wonderful opportunity to discuss animal habitats. What kind of environment does a frog live in? How about a turtle, a lizard, or a snake? How are their lifestyles and homes different, and what will they need in their tank?

If your kids are loving this, visit our whole collection of pretend play pet crafts! Or use a shoebox to make your own upcycled nature explorer kit – it’s a perfect way to collect and study the natural supplies you might want for your pet tank.

To make your own cardboard play pet tank you’ll need:

Note: We prefer to shop locally or use what we have at home, but this list contains either our own printable products, or Woodpeckers Crafts, Etsy, Blick Art Materials, and/or Amazon affiliate links for reference. As Amazon Associates, we make a small commission on qualifying purchases.*


  • A small-medium sized cardboard box
  • A piece of plastic (we used the lid of a grocery store vegetable tray)
  • A box cutter, cardboard scissors (these are the kind I use), or similar
  • A hot glue gun
  • Acrylic or tempera paints
  • Paper in a variety of colors
  • Craft glue, clear tape, or a glue stick
  • Pretend pets! (We made our lizards using this simple tutorial and printable from ART CAMP, but you can make your own types of animals or use existing play animals or softies.)


  • Scrap cardboard or cardboard tubes
  • Paint
  • Scissors
  • Scrap paper
  • Collected nature materials – sticks, bark, rocks, pinecones, etc.
  • Misc. recycled items to make into a food bowl, water drip, etc.


  • Paper packaging tape, electrical or duct tape to cover the edges of your plastic tank “front”

DIY Cardboard Pretend Play Pet Tank Instructions:

Trim one side off a cardboard box

Begin by cutting one side off of a cardboard box. I actually completely took our box apart, turned it inside out, and hot glued it back together (you can use packing tape instead) so the outside wouldn’t have printing on it. We trimmed the cut side of our box down to size and laid it on the “floor” of our tank to give the bottom a little added strength.
Cardboard box and plastic for pretend play pet tank
Cut a piece of plastic big enough to cover the front. This is a great way to reuse some plastic packaging instead of throwing it away – we used the top of a store-bought
cut vegetable tray.

Cover the inside of your box with colorful paper or paint

Using paint, construction, or wrapping paper, cover the inside of the box to create the backdrop for your environment. We hot glued the paper to our box sides, but you can also use craft glue or a couple small pieces of clear tape.
Paper covered cardboard box for pretend play pet tank

Consider the environment your “pet” will need

We used bold, bright colors and tropical touches to create the look of a steamy, lush climate for our little lizards. Depending on the climate your pretend pet lives in, you might use a very different color palette, shapes, and elements.
Painted cardboard and cut paper foliage for pretend play pet tank
Designing your tank for a pond turtle would require very different colors & materials than a tank for a desert-dwelling snake. Maybe you also need to add an area of “water,” a food bowl, or even a faux heat lamp… :-). You can use pictures of actual pet tanks or reptile terrariums for reference.

Collect foliage to use in your pet tank

To create our environment, we used a mixture of collected natural materials, cut paper foliage, and painted cardboard flowers and leaves. You can create fun textures on your elements by using stamps, dripped paint, fringe cuts, and more.
Painted cardboard and cut paper foliage for pretend play pet tank

Add your foliage to your pet tank

Once you have all your elements ready, it’s time to set up your environment in your box. Arrange the items to create a nice home for your play pet to inhabit. We made sure to include a lovely little sunning spot for our lizard with a piece of long bark and added a few angled sticks for climbing.
Arrange the paper foliage and nature materials in your pretend lizard tank
We also added some waves of “grass” in the back to create a little dimension and give our lizards a little “hiding spot.” A couple of small dabs of hot glue at the bottom keep the grass strips in place.

Add animals!

You simply cannot have a pet play tank without the pets, and we thought a stylish pair of lizards were just what our tank needed. We made our lizzies using this simple (but stunning!) tutorial and printable template from ART CAMP.
Fill your pretend reptile terrarium with your lizards!

ART CAMP’s tutorial includes a few easy, but inspired tips to make these look incredibly life-like…wait until you see the versions they made with chalk!

Glue or tape the clear plastic piece to the front of your tank

Once we set up our tank environment, we glued the front of our tank on. Cut plastic can have fairly sharp edges – if yours does, we recommend keeping little fingers safe by wrapping the edges with strips of electrical tape as we did. This also creates nice finished edges to make your tank look supremely close to the real thing!
Make an upcycled pretend pet tank for dramatic play or animal habitat learning!

We thought it would be a little easier to try out different tank setups (and take some pictures to share with you) without the front of our tank attached, but you can add yours whenever you’d like. As there’s no top, it’s easy to move things around and play.

A detail of the lizards and foliage we put in our pretend pet tank

Don’t they look so amazing?? And you might recognize a little ART CAMP influence in the environmental elements too…paint-stamped leaves inspired by their paper wildflower wreath, and painted southwestern foliage shapes, just like in their paper roll cacti.

Our upcycled cardboard box play pet tank filled with nature supplies and paper lizards sitting in front of a light pink background

Short on time or looking for a different kind of pet? You can make your own types of animals (try an egg carton turtle, or bubble-wrap printed chameleon perhaps!) or use existing play animals or stuffed animals.

A detail of the paper lizards and foliage we put in our pretend pet tank

For more recycled cardboard fun, use the sides of a box to design your own foldout secret garden or make a BIG foldout city landscape book! For kids who were more into the wild (animal) side of this craft, head outside for a backyard safari!

Painted cardboard and cut paper foliage  for pretend play pet tank

*A note about affiliate links: We strive to use simple, earth-friendly supplies that can be purchased locally whenever we can, but sometimes we find the best universally available options, a rare eco-friendly find, or a niche product only available on Blick Art Materials, Amazon, Etsy, or Woodpeckers Crafts. When included in our supply list, these products are affiliate links, and if you click through to make a purchase we receive a small commission that helps us re-order these supplies!

Amanda Eldridge
Amanda Eldridge

With a passion for cultivating imagination, Amanda aims to help kids and families discover their creative potential through art, play, adventure, activism, conservancy, and community. Amanda has a background in graphic design, environmental design, and art curation. When not playing with ideas and designs for barley & birch, she enjoys working in freelance design, art, and illustration.

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