When Chloe Harwell was just 2 years old, she had a thing for stickers and discarded boxes. After spreading an assortment of stickers across a pair of small white tables in the center of her bedroom, Chloe got her hands on a small recycling bin. “I was following behind and cleaning,” recalls mom Janette Harwell.
Harwell noticed an egg carton that resembled a piano. Then she saw a milk carton that seemed to be shaped like a pig.
An idea was born.
Harwell, a graphic designer whose specialties include product packaging, realized that stickers and old boxes make for marvelous playthings. She wondered whether anyone had ever thought to create stickers for turning things like tissue boxes or empty toilet paper rolls into toys.
An Internet search revealed that no such playthings existed, so Harwell started toying with the idea. She did a mock-up for three stickers sized for use with everyday items: for milk cartons, a pig; for egg cartons, a keyboard; for a rectangular box, a camera.
She did a few mock-ups and “emailed them to 10 or 15 mom friends.” The eco-friendly stickers were a hit.
A business was born.
Harwell operates “Box Play for Kids” out of the Phoenix home she shares with her husband Greg, also a designer.
I paid a visit on Sunday, eager to see how a family so committed to recycling might live. Would Chloe’s toy box be a real box filled with nothing but other boxes? Would the backyard be dotted with discarded appliance boxes turned into a makeshift village? I imagined all sorts of things.
When I got to the family’s front porch, I spotted a red Radio Flyer tricycle with a retro vibe. Chloe greeted me at the door sporting pigtails and a pink summer dress. She happily showed me her room, which is filled with toys that promote open-ended pretend play — from a small kitchen to a multilevel dollhouse.
Chloe’s artwork hangs from clips along two parallel wires mounted on one of her walls. A musical jewelry box, complete with twirling pink ballerina, sits atop her dresser. But these days her prized possession is a cardboard egg carton, transformed by a local artist into an elaborate paper garden complete with carrots and herbs.
Atop the family’s round dining room table sat an assortment of “Box Play for Kids” products. Rectangular milk cartons transformed into a firetruck, school bus and cow. A pair of empty toilet paper rolls covered in olive green stickers with a camouflage pattern, then bound together with a fat orange rubber band to form binoculars. And a pair of egg cartons, one a paint palette and the other a keyboard.
Between the dining room and Chloe’s room sits Janette’s office. Pink camouflage binoculars hang from a string draped over the doorknob. White floor-to-ceiling cabinets conceal the inventory Harwell sells online. For now, she does nearly everything from designing products to filling orders. Her latest designs include a friendly-looking yellow and black bee sticker sized for school lunch-size milk cartons.
Greg stands by quietly, fixing something that’s gone awry with Chloe’s stuffed white bunny with a pink tulle costume, as Janette talks of recent “Box Play for Kids” developments. The 9/11 Memorial Museum, scheduled to open this year in Manhattan, just ordered 1,000 firetruck stickers with custom packaging bearing the museum’s name.
Selling stickers one by one is tough, so Harwell prefers to do print runs of 1,000 pieces or more. She works with local printers and has plenty of creative ways for encouraging folks to buy in bulk — including selling sets of stickers for party favors.
Chloe demonstrates with glee various toys created with “Box Play for Kids” stickers, but it’s clear she has a favorite. Time and time again, she returns to the piano, playing the pretend keys as if they were producing real music. But soon she’s inspired to play the real thing, heading to a keyboard that sits in the family’s living room.
Pretend play is alive and well at the Harwell home, which gave rise to something even more marvelous than “Box Play for Kids.” It’s where Chloe’s magical childhood was born.