Thinking inside the box pays off for Oakley's Blue Manatee

The Blue Manatee Children’s Book Store recently won a prestigious national toy award for an inventive approach to a product kids have long treasured, and gift-givers long puzzled over—a cardboard box.

Yup, you read that right. The concept of Blue Manatee Box is simple really: Fill a cardboard box with books to read and other materials to encourage kids to turn the box itself into a toy.

But Blue Manatee, a mainstay in Oakley for decades, went a couple steps further.  All the materials are environmentally friendly and locally sourced, says store owner John Hutton.

The gift boxes are filled with hand-picked and developmentally appropriate books. But instead of plastic or cellophane, the boxes are filled with biodegradable packing peanuts made from a corn-based material, a small sponge, a crayon and a set of instructions on how parents and kids can use the box to let their imaginations run wild.  

It was all of those elements combined that wooed the Good Housekeeping Seal of approval of the toy world: Dr. Toy. The Blue Manatee won a Best Green Toy award from Dr. Toy Award judges.

“We were really, really excited,’’ Hutton says. “To me, boxes are one of the best toys invented. I thought that maybe this would be a little esoteric for the award.”

Not in the slightest, says Stevanne Auerbach, of San Francisco, who is Dr. Toy and herself an author and one of the nation’s leading experts on children’s play and interaction with toys.

“The product is creative, eco-friendly, an innovative concept that supports open-ended play,” she says.

The box idea is a natural extension for Hutton, a father, a child book author and a pediatrician, who is a vocal advocate of creating developmentally stimulating and screen-free activities for young children. Hutton says children thrive on open-ended, creative play such as taking a simple cardboard box and creating something completely new with it.

“It brings older kids and adults alike together,’’ he says. “It encourages mom and dad to get involved.’’

Dr. Robert Needlman, an associate professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University, is one of several experts who has endorsed the boxes.

“This keeps with the philosophy we have been preaching … over-reliance on technology is harmful to kids,’’ he says. “Also this is great because this is in line with raising children in an environmentally sensitive way, so they have a place to live when they are grown.

“It’s kind of the perfect toy, isn’t it?” he adds, noting that as a child his favorite boxes were those in which washing machines were delivered.

Hutton says the box idea was born from the need to offer an e-commerce option for the store’s website and the idea of creating gift baskets that were environmentally friendly and would also prompt play. He and art educator, Kelli Gleiner, who works at the store, have been creating the boxes for about a year.

The Oakley book store, filled from floor to ceiling with books, games and whimsy, has shipped boxes to about 30 states. The boxes come in three sizes – three books for $30; six books for $55; or nine books for $80. The cost includes all materials, the books and shipping, Hutton says.

A customized gift enclosure features original artwork by children’s authors and illustrators, including Lois Ehlert and Loren Long.  And the store also tucks in a user’s guide, tailored by age, which prompts older children and adults alike with ideas on how to transform the box and its contents.

Kids – and their parents -- are encouraged to send photos of their artistic endeavors to the Blue Manatee’s website, where they will posted in a photo gallery.

The store offers boxes by themes or folks can pick their own books as well, Hutton says. Generally, the boxes are built for children three and younger; however, the store may start building boxes for pre-school-aged kids in the future. Hutton says they plan to offer a Cincinnati box this fall.

All of the materials that are used to build the box are bought from regional companies. The tape, which does not contain fiberglass, comes from a West Chester company; the boxes are from a shipping company in Roselawn; the corn-based (edible – but not very tasty) packing peanuts are from a company called Puffy Stuff in Louisville and the blue crinkle paper comes from a company in Nashville.  

Judith B. Van Ginkel, professor of Pediatrics, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, and the president of Every Child Succeeds, has endorsed the boxes, saying “there is no better gift.”

“I like the Blue Manatee boxes because they encourage a child to be creative, to use his or her imagination to make a simple brown cardboard box into something wondrous,’’ she says. “The boxes are exciting---they come with magical books and foam peanuts that become building blocks and they provide a way for a child to dream—literally and figuratively, outside of the box.”

Chris Graves is the assistant vice president of social and digital media at The Powers Agency, a public relations and advertising agency. You can find her at Blue Manatee books and other independent book stores in the region.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.