Classroom Activity
Puffer Bellies and Box Cars
Turn cardboard boxes into outdoor dramatic play!

AGES 3–4


  • medium-size boxes (one for each child; large enough to sit in)
  • paint
  • paintbrushes and sponges
  • colored paper
  • markers
  • crepe paper streamers
  • chart paper

Objective: Foster cooperative and dramatic play outdoors by challenging children to create a train from cardboard boxes. Prepare: Collect pictures of trains and books about trains to share with children.

Warm-up: During group time, read a story about trains and share some of the pictures you’ve collected. Ask children if they have ever been on a train. What do they remember about the experience? Encourage them to think of words that describe a train. What do trains carry? What are some different kinds of trains? Record children’s comments on chart paper.

1. Explain to children that they are going to be making a train out of cardboard boxes. Provide a variety of paint colors and sponges for children to use to apply paint and create interesting textures.

2. Take the painted boxes to the playground and invite children to use them to make a train (or trains). Let their play develop and observe how the children use this opportunity to play together and how they incorporate the outdoor environment into their play. (Some children may even use the boxes to invent a whole new experience.)

3. As a follow-up, ask children to think of places they would like to travel to on their train. What would they like to take with them on their trip? Together, gather related props, such as backpacks, purses, dolls, and dress-up clothes, to enhance their travel adventure. Provide paper so children can make tickets, signs, and so on for the train.

Tip : You may want to ask families to assist you in collecting boxes for children to use in this activity.

Write the lyrics to the song "Down by the Station" on chart paper. Explain to the children that a puffer belly is a funny name for a steam engine..

Down by the station
Early in the morning.
See the little puffer bellies
All in a row.
Hear the stationmaster
Blow the engine’s whistle.
Puff, puff, chug, chug,
Off we go.

Children will enjoy these classic and endearing train stories.

Engine, Engine Number Nine by Stephanie Calmenson (Hyperion Children)
Freight Train by Donald Crews (Greenwillow)
The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper (Putnam)