Pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, paper cups, construction paper. All staples of the American arts and crafts scene when I was growing up. In our daycare in Japan, the kids have a very different set of supplies.

Packaging is an art in Japan. From paper to plastic, how something is wrapped in Japan carries a certain gravity. The simple act of unwrapping something from a Japanese department store or a gift from a neighbor feels like a whole experience and sets the tone for the item within, even if you are getting another necktie or some dried squid.

This leaves a lot of empty boxes and containers in Japan that make their way into the hands of children hungry for their building blocks for their latest creations.

All hail the might milk carton of Japan! Thanks to its special lining, you can’t put it with the other paper recycling in Japan so it becomes a frequent contribution to daycares across this nation.

When my oldest son started at age 3 in his daycare, the teachers would guide them along and nearly all the kids would come home that day with the same little Almond chocolate-box dog or toilet paper roll butterfly. As he moved up to ages 4 and 5, however, it was fun to see how kids put their creative personalities on display.

One day it was a laptop computer made from some old tissue boxes and marker-drawn keys (yes, it could fold close), another a diving kit with milk cartons tapped together for the air cylinders and a regulator made from a hemisphere you find in apple packaging to protect those oh so precious San-Fuji, Akibae, and other perfectly plump Japanese apples.

While legos at home tend to transform into starships or vehicles, it was fascinating to see the real-world objects that he created at daycare with these recycled materials. He did bring home the occasional x-wing or star destroyer, but it was just as likely to see him gleaming when presenting me with a vacuum cleaner or cash register.

What to do with all of these things is an easy conversation starter with any of the parents. They fall into a couple of camps. The just throw the stuff out once in a while or keep it groups. We tried to keep our mountain of stuff under control at home as best we could and it has always been the responsibility of the boys to throw away what they didn’t value anymore. Not surprisingly, the act of creating these creations seems to bring the boys the most joy vs playing with them at a later date. Kids are amazing at turning on a dime when it comes to deciding what to keep. Blows me away every time when I see them classify a creation as trash after having invested so much time into it. I wonder where the emotional attachment we have to our creations comes from?

Japan will keep packing and wrapping and kids across this island nation will keep breathing new life into those boxes and papers. I’m excited to see what the next 4-5 years bring as kids 2 and 3 make their way through the milk carton academy.