Abel Aguilar, 3, stacked as many toy animals as he could on a small wooden boat, smiling as his animal tower grew taller and taller. Some toddlers beside him painted art projects with their hands and others popped out of cardboard boxes with astronaut helmets.
This wasn’t a day at preschool or activities hour at daycare. Instead, kids gathered with their parents Wednesday at Bigboxplay in Valencia, a first-of-its-kind play system that engages children in creative and physical play and learning, with cardboard boxes as the foundation of their activities.
The company, with its first store located at the Westfield Valencia Town Center mall in February, was founded by Pete Moffett, a grandfather of six. He and CEO Jonathan Rubin, who runs the store, shared the same vision: Get kids off of digital devices and on to physical play.
“We wanted a centerpiece of an imagination center where we could get kids off devices and get them back to using their brains again,” said Rubin. “Parents kept telling us that their children were missing out on their childhood.”
As their goal was solidifying, Moffett was already working on a life-sized, highly durable and modular set of cardboard boxes that can be arranged in multiple ways for children to use in play activities.
“Whether their imagination calls for a castle, rocket ship or fort, children can rearrange Bigboxplay over and over again to their liking via our patent-pending bolt and grommet system,” the company website reads.
Rubin believed the project would only sell online, sending packets of the self-setup boxes all around the world, rather than open a store. But when the opportunity came, he envisioned a series of opportunities.
Six months into the store opening and Bigboxplay offers a series of activities, including $5 for free play, and $10 art and music classes and wellness workshops. Children with special needs can also participate as the store offers special sensory play sessions. The store also holds birthday parties and Fantasy Fridays, where kids can dress up and indulge in reading time.
While activities at Bigboxplay have some education-based elements, network coordinator Charrise Cuevas said, “A lot of the learning happens just with hands-on play.” With a bulk of the children participating at the age before entering preschool, she added that “right now is just about having a good time, getting messy and exploring together. If we have a meltdown that’s OK.”
On Wednesday, the store held its first Parent and Me class, which offers playtime for children and even offers an opportunity for parents from around the area to meet.
“Sometimes people are so secluded and just text someone,” said Cuevas. “It was nice to see not only the kids play but see the parents start conversations with each other.”
Rubin added that talking is almost a forgotten art in today’s society and Bigboxplay can offer that space for children growing up in a digital-first world.
And Aguilar’s mother, Jessica, couldn’t agree more. She added that while looking for a place where her children could feel free to interact with others, she found Bigboxplay. “I like the imagination place. It’s structured enough but still free for the kids to get out and do what they want to do at this age.”
It’s been a successful six months for Bigboxplay, including “Big Box Adventure,” a five-episode television show that airs on BabyFirst TV, but Rubin has hope for more.
“The perfect future for me would look like: opening more stores, bring back creativity and imagination, making the arts available at affordable prices and helping underprivileged communities and schools.”
To learn more, visit Bigboxplay.