The Greatest of Them All


One material in school age care has stood the test of time. There are many great materials but this material is the greatest in my opinion because of it’s versatility, cost, and availability. This material is created from different types of paper. It features a liner made of long fibers from softwood trees. The center of this material is called the flute and is created from short fibers of hardwood trees to give it strength. When the liner and the flute are glued together using cornstarch glue, pressed with high heat and steam the result is a wonderful material. The official name is corrugated fiberboard, but most people call it by the generic name cardboard.

Cardboard is not only my favorite material but the all time favorite material of children in school age care. Looking back on a long career, I remember hundreds of projects and great work the children have created with this corrugated wonder.

Wanting to know more about my favorite material I searched for some answers to my questions about the origins of cardboard. Wikipedia reports, cardboard first appeared in 1817 in Germany and England as paperboard used to protect hats and fragile objects. This material is similar to the paperboard we see today in cereal boxes and product packaging. In the United States, the year 1871, corrugated boxboard was patented in New York City and a machine to create boxboard was invented in 1874. The corrugated boxboard we know of today was invented in 1895 and is constructed with a paper liner on both sides of the corrugated material, instead of a paper liner on one side as boxboard was crafted in England during the initial development of cardboard as a packaging material.

My history with cardboard goes back to the start of my career as an educator. I worked in a school age program with other creative educators. They enlightened me about a magical plentiful substance we could use to create anything. During this time as a learning community we collaborated with the children to make a pirate ship, replicas of buildings, backgrounds for plays, wall installations, body armor, swords, light sabers, boats, small homes, clubhouses, etc. The list is endless. The exploration of cardboard and the possibilities it offers are still being explored as the children and I use it to create new and wonderful work to this day.

One example is how we use cardboard as a substitute canvas with great results. I remember one painting with a special connection to the children in the program. A dog the children loved visited the program on occasion. Our furry friend would play with the children and was available for comfort and friendship. This dog was an inspiration for children without pets to become familiar with animals and their care. One day we decided to create a life size painting of the dog to honor and remember her when she was not visiting. We collected a giant piece of cardboard and invited our furry friend to lie on her side. Then the children traced the dog with pencil. After the tracing was complete the children used photographs and memories to paint a cardboard likeness of our furry friend. The end result was a life size representation of our friend that was displayed in the program for all to enjoy.

Another beautiful aspect of cardboard is the wide variety of sizes it comes in. One summer we acquired large refrigerator boxes and other large boxes. All summer the children enjoyed the boxes and the challenge of building clubhouses. Teams of children worked together to create their own unique outdoor living space to play in, hangout with friends and make their own. I remember the eagerness and joy the children displayed in this work and the determination they employed as work advanced on their box clubhouses. I could continue with many more stories of cardboard creations but I am wondering what is the attraction of cardboard as a creative material?

There is an activity that is repeated every year during the holidays and birthdays as children everywhere are often more intrigued by the box than the thing inside of it. Why is this a truth most of us have experienced? What is the connection of young children to a box? In an article in “The Conversation” author Julie Brierley talks about the psychology of wrapping paper, boxes and children saying, At a very early age, children use play to drive their own learning. And when young children are allowed and actively encouraged to explore and follow their own interests, they develop understanding from their actions.” She continues, “So, when children explore and experiment with objects such as boxes, paper and ribbons, they are using both their sensory and physical to extend their thinking.” A few paragraphs later she states, “Through the sensory and physical exploration of the discarded boxes and Christmas wrapping paper, the foundations of learning and cognitive development are occurring.”  The interesting aspect of this article to an educator is we observe this behavior all the time as we work with the children and recycled materials.

Another aspect of cardboard and recycled materials is how we acquire them. I love this part of the process because it helps to build our learning community. Most of the cardboard and other materials we have come from the families in the program. I bring in materials from my house but this makes up a small fraction of the materials we use. Families wanting to participate in the program can make a real impact on our work by saving and dropping off materials including cardboard to our school and then see these materials transformed by the learning community.

The children love to create with cardboard and recycled materials. I have used these materials almost exclusively for the past 6 years in my work with school age children. The amount of creativity and concentration the children employ when using cardboard continues to amaze me. When I think the material has reached the limit of creative license the children invent a new ways to explore the possibilities of this wonderful material.

Do you use cardboard in your program?

How are recycled materials and loose parts integrated in your program?