I smiled when I read The Wall Street Journal opinion headline, “An Empty Box is the Perfect Christmas Gift.” The op-ed took me on a trip down memory lane. For years, cardboard boxes were part of our three boys’ Christmas Wish Lists. Of course that was listed alongside Legos or Game Boys, Rescue Heroes or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – whatever toys were connected with the latest cartoon that enthralled them. Even so, they also asked for big cardboard boxes.

It started when our oldest was pre-school age. We’d give him a big box, and he’d spend hours coloring it with crayons and felt pens. He’d glue or tape all kinds of paper, cardboard and foam odds and ends onto it. (I like to think of it as a small effort on our part to reuse and recycle.) A friend from down the street would come by and they’d work together for days on their box creation. I’m still not sure what they made, as the box’s purpose constantly morphed and changed.

When our oldest was joined by twin brothers and they were all a little older, they all wanted cardboard boxes. One creation I remember was a “Transmogrifier” – they were heavily influenced by Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. Bless you Bill Watterson: They’d spend hours reading your books then hours emulating Calvin and his tiger friend. Calvinball was big in our home, too.

A few years later, they’d stuff a fridge- or oven-sized box full of pillows and sleeping bags. They and their friends would take turns sliding down the stairs to the basement, where more pillows and blankets softened the landing. Yes, the baseboards and handrail were slightly damaged. There were loud bumps and bangs. There were the occasional not-too-serious injuries. But big boxes made for hours of fun.

Boxes weren’t just a staple at our house. A friend of mine, Bruce, tells the story of driving home for lunch one day to find a cardboard box town set up in his front yard. His wife Eileen, their two children and a neighbor family had spent hours cutting out holes for windows and doors, then painting and setting up the town. The moms would sit in beach chairs while they kids played together. They enjoyed the town for days, until a summer rain collapsed their cardboard creation.

For Christmas and birthdays in junior high, my sons still asked for boxes, along with duct tape and inexpensive foam camping mats. With their friends, they’d spend hours crafting swords, spears, shields and helmets. The foam helped to protect and soften errant – or intentional – blows.

They’d play with their homemade weaponry at home and in parks and yards. But the most memorable times were when they’d get together with a larger group of friends and play The Hunger Games. Parents would drop off the kids at a regional park or someone’s house that backed onto an open space. All the weapons – okay, there were some store bought Nerf Blasters – would be dumped in a pile. The kids would back away, someone would give a signal, they’d scramble for weapons and armor, and then they’d scatter out into the park and spend hours hunting each other down. One kid stopped being invited when he stayed hidden the whole game – even when his parents came shouting for him hours later.

Now they’re all older, in college or getting ready to head there. Higher education is expensive. I wish I’d returned half the presents and clothes they were given over the years and socked away the money in college funds. I’d have given them fewer toys – and more boxes.