How to Build a Shadowbox for Kid Playtime

Coming off of a week up north with some of our best family friends, one thing jumped out at me: for the younger members of the family staying with us, it was a bit of a challenge for them to willfully unplug from phones, video games and even TV for a few days. And since so many of us grown-ups can be guilty of getting too much screen time ourselves, I can understand how tough it is for kids to put down the phone or tablet for a few hours.

So what do you do when heading out on a road trip or vacation and want your children to bring more “analog” activities than techy ones? Look for toys and games that are heavy on imaginative play. Cards, board games and simple art/craft supplies are some of my favorites to have on hand.

A trip down the wood craft aisle at Jo-Ann Fabrics and Craft stores resulted in me discovering some simple wooden dollhouses that are meant to be used as display shadowboxes, but also double as perfect, minimalist playhouses that will have your child relying on a great story to guide their play. Paired with ready-to-decorate doll figures, you’ve got the making of a simple toy that can travel anywhere.


  • Shadowbox house
  • Plain wooden doll figures
  • Craft paints
  • Paintbrushes
  • Sanding block
  • Painters tape (optional)
  • Other decorating supplies


To get started, prepare the wooden shadowbox for painting. Using your sanding block, remove any rough edges and give the piece an overall sand to make sure it’s extra smooth and splinter free. If your child would like to paint the house several different colors, mark off an area, like the top of the house here, so that they concentrate on one section at a time.

Paint the front and sides of the house first and let dry completely in between coats of paint. I kept my house very plain, but have your child cut out images to use as decorations for the house, depending on what they want it to look like.

Once the front and sides of the house are dry, paint the back. You can add a protective coat of sealant to the house if you’d like. Let dry.

While the house paint is drying, have your children decorate the figures. Again, my dolls are extra plain to reinforce the simplicity of the activity, but you can have your figures decorated however you like. When the decorating is done you’re ready to pack up your house and hit the road.


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