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5 Ways to Keep Kids Occupied With a Cardboard Box

You don’t always need fancy gadgets to have fun and learn
Cardboard box illustration

Summer can get complicated, with summer camps, enrichment, or playdates. But sometimes, simple, low-tech, low-cost materials can keep children engaged and learning for hours. One of these simple solutions may even be sitting in your recycling bin right now: the cardboard box. That humble cardboard box has the potential to spark a child’s imagination and can transform a child into a maker. 

As makers, students look closely at the objects and systems around them, explore complexity in the world, and find opportunities to build, hack, or redesign objects and systems. This past year, the Agency by Design: Making Across the Curriculum project, led by Project Zero researchers Edward Clapp and Sarah Sheya partnered with teachers and schools in Washington, D.C. (and virtually, at home), to reimagine and transform ordinary, everyday objects in their surroundings into something new. The material many of them returned to again and again because of its versatility and accessibility was cardboard.

“At its core, making is about thinking and learning — and not about fancy tools and materials,” says Clapp, a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “With this emphasis on low-tech and no-tech tools and materials, it’s no surprise that cardboard has been a go-to resource.” And, he and many participating educators might argue, working within the confines of materials at home helped students become better makers. 

Here, D.C. educators who participated in the project share five of their favorite ways to use a cardboard box:

1.    Create post-COVID totems

from gerald d. smith jr., principal, St. Thomas More Catholic Academy 

  • Have kids and parents create a totem from a box to represent the things they would take with them and the things they’d leave behind after a year in the pandemic. 
  • What they’re learning: Through models and representations, kids observe and translate abstract concepts and ideas into concrete actions and objects. 

2.    Construct a paper circuit using a cardboard base

from middle school science teacher Amy Tong, Washington International School

  • Have kids try to build different kinds of circuits using batteries, LED lights, and copper tape. Cardboard can provide a smooth, durable space for kids to try out new systems for wiring a lightbulb to a battery.
  • What they’re learning: Kids can experiment with a complex system in a controlled way that allows them to make adjustments or redesigns and see the immediate impact of these changes. 

3.    Build an amusement park

from middle school humanities teacher Lauren Wright, Washington International School — or, for younger children, build a standing sculpture, from preschool teacher Maria Rodriguez, Sacred Heart School

  • Cardboard is an ideal construction material because it is durable enough to stand on its own but can also be cut, folded, and glued. Have students take on the role of an architect as they cut and fit shapes together to make buildings with columns and arches or find ways to make a structure stand independently.
  • What they’re learning: Students learn math, physics, and engineering principles in these hands-on activities. They also learn valuable problem-solving skills — for example, if something doesn’t stand on its own, can it be propped up, does it need a larger base, or does it need a redesign? Younger students, too, can pick up on these principles when they have a chance to build as well.

4.    Turn it into an animal or a vehicle

from pre-K instructors Patricia Gonzalez and Maria Rodriguez, Sacred Heart School

  • Let a child’s imagination lead the way. What could an ordinary box be? With some construction paper add-ons like a steering wheel or ears and maybe a coat of paint, the box could become a new pet or a car. Large boxes are particularly good for play as kids can fully incorporate their creations in play by sitting in or on them. Not to mention, kids can add on to or redesign their creations as their play develops — maybe the car can also turn into a spaceship.
  • What they’re learning: By determining what they want to make, the tools they’ll need to create it, and putting together a plan for that process, kids are developing individual agency. If kids are working together to create something, they’ll learn skills like listening, collaboration, and compromise.

5.    Retell a story using characters and settings made out of cardboard

from gerald d. smith jr., principal, St. Thomas More Catholic Academy

  • Paint flat pieces of cardboard with scenery to serve as a setting. Make characters by drawing them on cardboard and cutting them out. Now, have your characters reenact a scene from the book. Maybe, the plot takes a different turn. For example, what would happen if the classic story of the three little pigs took place in outer space?
  • What they’re learning: Often, the maker space is associated with STEAM subjects. However, there’s no reason not to incorporate it into language arts as well. Reenacting a story helps kids learn to summarize, notice and remember details, and develop a descriptive voice. Having students take on the role of a character encourages perspective taking and empathy. 

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