Learning from a Cardboard Arcade

Chris Lazartic

Almost a decade ago, a young, creative mind was made famous on the internet by a brief film documentary. Caine’s arcade, which debuted in 2012, showcased a boy’s cardboard arcade that he made in his father’s automotive shop. The movement grew after the documentary took off, and it inspired the creation of a non-profit called Imagination.org, “Global Cardboard Challenge” and “A Day of Play.” Here at Aspen Academy, we were also inspired by this movement and decided to join in on the fun! Here are my top 6 learnings from our “cardboard experiences” the past few years:


1. The Power of the First Follower

Before we get into the engineering lessons, let’s first think about how this movement, like many most others, gained traction. I can confidently say that without Nirvan’s (the filmmaker) help, it was very likely that Caine’s Arcade would have remained an unpopular destination. As Derek Silvers describes in his TED Talk “How to Start a Movement,” “The best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow.” As parents, teachers, students, peers, and co-workers, we can all learn that we can make a difference by celebrating and spreading the unique ideas we encounter. Because, without that first follower, it may be difficult for fantastic ideas to take off. Post the pic, write the email, make the phone call, have the conversation, promote that idea!


2. Be Dedicated to Differentiation

When we give people cardboard, we open up a world of possibilities. Cardboard is appropriate for both a 4 year old and a 54 year old. Some learners may leave a lot up to the imagination with their cardboard “rocket ships,” while others may hold aesthetics to a high standard as they re-create the Taj Mahal. Students that are really into robotics may incorporate a LEGO Mindstorm into their project in some way. The artists in your group can take time painting and decorating their masterpiece. I have had the most success with cardboard creations when I open up the parameters. Some learners may want to engage their community with a game, while others may want to impress them with a beautiful work of art or an invention that completes a task. Also, as with many engineering challenges, you can alter your limitations and expectations for learners of different abilities. Kindergarteners may build a house for a mouse, while high school engineers may design and systematically test an arch bridge.

3. Look for Ways to Incorporate Sustainability

Although it took a year, I am happy to say that I’ve learned how to be more sustainable with cardboard challenges. Last year, I allowed students to purchase additional materials with their reasonable budget. This resulted in very creative games and experiences, however, it generated a lot of waste. This year, I offered a bonus for projects that did not require the purchase of any additional materials (they were either recycled or repurposed). I learned that this was an excellent way to incorporate sustainability into an engineering exercise. When completing a task, we can ask our learners about what is going to happen to the product after we are finished. Since many of our past projects, to my chagrin, probably made their way to a landfill, it is great to remind our learners of this. Next semester, it will be a requirement to only use recycled materials.


4. Identify Entrepreneurial Leadership Lessons

As you may know, Aspen Academy is proud to promote entrepreneurial leadership lessons throughout the academic day for all stakeholders. A cardboard challenge or arcade is another great way to teach your learners to be business-savvy engineers. They will need to manage a budget, meet deadlines, set costs depending on supply and demand, schedule shifts, market, advertise, develop unique ideas, collaborate, and much more. A meaningful debrief after the experience is also a great time to consider questions like “What worked? What didn’t work? What was easy? What was hard? What changes did you have to make? Did those changes help or hurt the experience? What would you do differently next time?” As facilitators, we can give our learners as many opportunities like these to learn and grow.


5. Engineer for Success

Cardboard building exercises are also fantastic opportunities to practice the engineering design process. Although the process varies slightly depending on the source, I typically use the one shown below for middle school students. Generally, the process flows from Ask, Research, Imagine, Plan, Create, Test, to Improve. I love to dedicate a lot of time to the Testing phase. As with any design challenge, it must be tested repeatedly to observe whether or not the results are desirable. In the case of a cardboard game, testing is critical. Is the game to hard or easy? Is it durable? How long does a turn take? Earlier this semester, a fine pair of engineers offered a generous 50 tries to each contestant for their game. While very generous, I encouraged the engineers to pilot this amount to see how it worked. They quickly realized that 50 tries took each customer too much time, and they modified their sign so that it could change depending on the line of customers. Also, students frequently do not realize that difficulty is a HUGE aspect of most games (arcade, board, carnival). If a game is too easy, people will not be challenged and move on; if it is too hard, they may give up and similarly move on. BUT, if they game is the right difficultly, customers may try and repeatedly come back. The only way to figure this out is to test, test, and test some more.

6. Incorporate Design Thinking

Cardboard challenges are also a productive way to practice Design Thinking. The design thinking method has been around a while; it is series of practical steps to follow in order to efficiently and effectively design concepts. The popular series contains five steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. This is similar to the Engineering Design Process I discussed previously, but I really enjoy incorporating the first step: Empathize. Design thinking really stresses the importance of getting to know your user before beginning the design process. Who should you learners be designing their cardboard arcade for? Is for lower school students? Their parents? Teachers? Grandparents? It is possible that they will realize that a game they would build for a younger sibling may be drastically different than one constructed for a teacher. You can also challenge your learners by randomly assigning them a user type. I had a lot of success with a cardboard invention project that required my engineers to build a device to help make life for an elderly person easier.

In conclusion, there are MANY lessons to be learned from a cardboard challenge. Most adults are capable of facilitating a cardboard-creation session, and there are challenges and activities available for all skill levels. However, there are two things to consider when taking on a challenge like this. First, be safe. Cutting and shaping cardboard can be difficult. Older learners (grades 6+) may be ready to handle a utility blade, while you may have to pre-cut pieces for the younger engineers. Also, please be aware that a successful cardboard challenge can take a LONG time. It may take months for your engineers to flesh out their ideas using the entrepreneurial, engineering, and design thinking processes. If you want to talk more, share ideas, or get involved in the movement as a parent, teacher, or engineer, email me.

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About the Author:

Chris Lazartic is Middle School STEAM Coach, Student Leadership and Entrepreneurship Coach at Aspen Academy.

Chris moved from Delaware to teach at Aspen Academy in 2010. He has a Master's Degree in Educational Leadership (University of Denver) and a Bachelor's degree in Earth Science Education, as well as his principal licensure. Chris loves that Aspen is a place that continues to inspire growth on both a personal and professional level. Outside of work, Chris can be found hiking, camping, disc golfing, skiing and traveling. Chris lives in Conifer, Colorado, with his wife, Elyse, their two dogs and horse.