Imagination Station: An Ode to the Tickle Trunk

To many kids, a box filled with clothes is simply a dress up box. But if you were a kid in Canada between 1967 to 1996, it was a Tickle Trunk – a magical portal to a world powered primarily by imagination.

Coined by Mr Dressup – our uniquely Canadian and delightfully low-budget answer to Mr. Rogers – the Tickle Trunk was a bright red, unassuming trunk, adorned with bright flowers. Mr. Dressup (a plain-spoken, kind-eyed gentleman memorably played by Ernie Coombs) would open his Tickle Trunk each episode and be greeted by a brand new costume.

Like (TV) magic, whatever Mr. Dressup pulled from the trunk was perfectly suited for the challenge at hand – be it a scarecrow getup, dragon suit or patchy overalls – and was always just his size. He’d gamely try each costume on and immediately assume the persona of whatever he uncovered, satisfying the golden rule of both improv and imaginative play: always say ‘yes’.

Something about spending our after-school TV time watching imagination unfold seeped into our collective consciousness. Before it was a buzzword, thousands of Canadian kids were experiencing open-ended play day after day. Not only did we experience the power a humble box filled with costumes could yield, we witnessed an adult who was just as ‘tickled’ by the possibilities of imagination as we were.

Mr. Dressup and his Tickle Trunk (CBC Photo Archives)

More than a few of us Canadian young-uns had Tickle Trunks of our own. Part junk box for our parents’ fancy castaways, part magical imagination station, we’d plunge our little arms in, rummaging around for feather boas, wobbly heels and plastic stethoscopes. The joy of the Tickle Trunk was never knowing what you’d find – the constant replenishment from our parents meant each playdate was an opportunity for something new. Some objects were a mystery – a tiara pilfered from a friend, a sisterhood of the travelling evening gown. And this is what made it so special: a sharing economy, bolstered by the humble Trunk.

These hodge-podged costumes formed the basis for hours of imaginative play: from retellings of Cinderella in old wedding shoes and a torn veil, to impassioned Little Mermaid arias, complete with velvet green evening gown fashioned as a tail. Police helmets were props in high-speed Big Brother chases and used to torment the suspect du jour (usually the cat), while gaudy costume jewelry served as both pirate’s booty and the finest crown jewels.

While we may not have had TV magic to serve up the perfectly timed costume, it often felt like we did. Each time we opened the trunk, some hidden prop seemed to have risen to the top. While kids all over the world over certainly had versions of this – dress up box, mom’s closet, the rummage store down the street – there was something uniquely Canadian about the Tickle Trunk: the ability to make something out of nothing, to harness magic through sheer willpower, using only what was at hand.

Want to try your hand at a Tickle Trunk of your own? Here are a few tips:

-Any sturdy toy box or container will do, though one with a lid is preferred to keep a handle on some of the mess (and to celebrate the magic of opening it up!).

-Start by filling it with some cast-off clothes you no longer need – formal wear is always fun, as are clothes with a pretend play theme they could be used for (nurse’s scrubs, old halloween costumes, sporting goods).

-Part of the magic are the constantly changing goodies found inside – don’t be afraid to replenish often!

-Props are a must to add play value – anything goes, but you can try and build on the theme of the clothes that are already in there. Pretend play props include stethoscopes and medical equipment, old costume jewelry, plastic food, and on and on!

Find complete episodes of Mr. Dressup on YouTube for inspiration!

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