Perhaps nothing marks the ascent to adulthood more distinctly than one's gut reaction to a cardboard box.
To a grown-up, a cardboard box is anxiety's vehicle. It means packing (shudder) and moving (deep breaths) and unpacking (migraine). It means a giant appliance and its giant payment plan. It means responsibility.
To a child, a cardboard box is untapped potential. It's a fort, a rocket, a bus, a canvas. It has no rules, no instructions, no winners, no losers. It means freedom.
"We've always joked, 'We should just do a whole exhibit of cardboard boxes,'" says Jennifer Farrington, Chicago Children's Museum president. "You can make art, climb, build, pretend. There are a million things you can do with boxes."
Roughly that many were being attempted on a recent morning at "Unboxed: Adventures in Cardboard," the museum's newly opened exhibit. Just south of the main entrance on the museum's second floor, "Unboxed" invites you in with a stunning 43-feet-long, 11-feet-high 3-D cardboard mural by Chicago artist Megan Hovany.
Inside the sunlit exhibit space, organized chaos reigns supreme. Free-standing cardboard boxes, tubes and sheets sit alongside a cardboard maze and castle, with varying heights and multiple nooks. Nary an empty surface was to be found the day we visited, with kids climbing and leaping and hide 'n' seeking, panting and squealing with delight. Long tubes — the kind left after the last of the wrapping paper is used — became tunnels, swords, telescopes.
A craft table stocked with scissors, masking tape, crayons, hole punches and cardboard pieces invites artistic pursuit. We watched a 10-year-old girl stack, secure and color cardboard sphere upon sphere upon sphere. "It's a Broadway-style hat," she told us. When she left, she handed it to an employee, who assured her it would be displayed within the exhibit.
"Could this day get any better?" she inquired excitedly to her mom.
Cardboard birds, suns, masks and other whimsy populate the room, hanging from old bicycle tires salvaged from the Working Bikes Cooperative, a local nonprofit that repairs old bikes to sell or give to charity. Much of the cardboard is donated by Glenview-based Abt Electronics and Memphis, Tenn.-based International Paper.
"We'll reuse everything within an inch of its life and then recycle and replace it as needed," says Farrington.
Katie Slivovsky, exhibit development director, says she's wanted a cardboard exhibit for more than two decades. (The Chicago Children's Museum was founded in 1982.)
"I love the idea of presenting the beauty of boxes and still leaving room for kids to find all of their own possibilities," says Slivovsky. "That's a tricky thing. People in my field often want to overdo it. You don't want to give kids all the answers."
Which is why "Unboxed" nests so nicely within the rest of the museum, with its stated mission of connecting play and learning. A successful balance must be struck between guiding little visitors to a good time and getting out of their way once they arrive.
Apart from "Unboxed," little has changed at the museum since the installation of "Michael's Museum," a permanent exhibit of tiny treasures (jewelry, dollhouse furniture) collected by curator Michael Horvich that opened in August 2011.
The Great Room, on the museum's third floor, is still a bustle of giant dominoes and miniature bowling and oversize chess and checker games. Surrounding rooms offer a tool-stocked construction site, water play, faux fishing exploits, trips to the pretend grocery store, a re-created dinosaur dig and an inventing lab.
The first floor, in danger of being relegated to an afterthought because of the building's design (entrance on the second floor, pricey gift shop on the first floor) is worth a visit for its arts studio and gallery. Hourly staff-led classes instruct visitors in painting, sewing, sculpting and more.
And you'd be hard-pressed to find a museum whose levels are more fun to traverse than this one. A three-story schooner connects the cargo hold (first floor) to the crow's nest (third floor). Kids ages 5 and up can scale the rope rigging from second to third floors or slide down the rope slide from the second to first floor, home to aquariums of tropical fish.
Children will find their particular favorites among and within the museum's spaces, and those favorites will, of course, change visit to visit. But little, if anything, here bears skipping altogether.
Displayed near the entrance of "Unboxed" is a list of exhibit rules: Come in. Play. Hide. Build. Design. Create. Imagine. They're rules that could easily translate to any of the museum's rooms.
And if we're lucky, rules that our kids will carry with them throughout life, especially the cardboard box-heavy years.
'Unboxed: Adventures in Cardboard'
When: Through May 5
Where: Chicago Children's Museum, 700 E. Grand Ave. on Navy Pier
Tickets: Included in admission, $12 for children and adults; $11 for seniors. Children younger than 1 are free; 312-527-1000 or chicagochildrensmuseum.orgCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times