Cardboard Summer

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The exploration started with a gift. In our program, we receive wonderful support from parents and community members with collecting and maintaining a stock of recycled materials. Near the beginning of Summer Camp, several large refrigerator and furniture boxes were donated and added to our collection of materials.

Having a connection with parents and members of the community is vital to the success of a program. Gathering support for the needs of the program enables us as educators, to facilitate our vision of learning with the children, and creates pathways to share and collaborate with the community at large.

The collection of boxes were too large to fit into our classroom space so we stored them in a covered outdoor space and waited for the children to inquire about utilizing them for their work. 

Intrigued by the size and potential of the boxes it did not take long for several children to inquire about their use. The children wanted to know where they came from and what we had planned for them? Were the boxes part of a special project or could they use them freely to create with?

I am always surprised when the children ask if they can use something. True it is polite and I appreciate their considerate nature, but the materials are for them to use. As educators, we encourage the children to have an initial idea of how they want to utilize or explore the material and then they are free to get to work and enjoy.

The work begins with a few groups of children coming together and deciding to create forts, clubhouses, and homes out of the large boxes. The fact that the children formed collaborations to work with the materials was encouraging so many children could benefit from the experience and use of the materials.

The work began and the children employed considerable energy and time into the design and construction. The cardboard buildings were held together with packaging tape. This created a challenge for the educators who all of a sudden needed to acquire a large quantity of tape so the children could continue their work uninterrupted.

This is the nature of our work with school age children. A few children come up with an idea and then other children become inspired to work on the same idea. This increases the need for resources, requiring the educators to scramble and acquire enough materials so the work can continue uninterrupted. This is not a problem, it is a joy, to witness the children excited and engaged with work of their own choosing.

As summer moved forward, the children continued to utilize their free time to work on their cardboard homes. After the initial structures were built, the children added accessories to the interiors of their homes for additional functionality and comfort. Many of the children brought in special items to decorate and play with inside of their cardboard homes. Some groups added personal style to their homes by painting the inside and outside surfaces.

Everyday, the children used their structures to play and hang out in. They would bring toys and materials into the structures. I would often discover children drawing, painting, reading, and listening to music with friends inside of their cardboard homes. I think the children really enjoyed the independence of the space and being able to make choices away from the larger group. The children often express the desire to have a space of their own and the cardboard homes were filling a desire to have a space to call their own.

As work during cardboard summer continued, the houses became bigger and some groups of children decided to combine their houses into cardboard mansions. A few children even acquired new large boxes and brought them into the program to add to their existing structure. All of the construction now covered the entire outdoor hard space that was connected to the classroom.

I was wondering as the summer moved forward and the children spent each day of their vacation playing in cardboard structures if they would get bored or when they would be done with this project and want to move ahead to some other work. It never really happened. In summer, we have camp where the children participate in work at the school but also leave the facility to go on fieldtrips several time a week. This along with swimming trips and water days left the children excited and appreciative to have a space where they could chill and relax so they looked forward to coming back to their cardboard homes.

Our summer camp lasts eleven weeks. During the entire eleven weeks, the children who started the cardboard village, during the first week of summer, kept it going for the duration of our time together. Near the end of the summer, we invited the children to take their cardboard home, home. If this was not an option, we decided as a group to re-use as much of the cardboard as possible by cutting it up into smaller sections and then recycle the rest. 

Most projects have a natural beginning and ending point. When a project ends or begins is an agreement between the children and educators. Usually both groups realize when it is time to begin a new exploration. This did not happen with the cardboard homes, so together we decided that the end of summer, a transition point for children and teachers alike, would be the time to end this exploration for now.

As we deconstructed the cardboard village, the children relived memories of the construction and the time spent over the summer with friends in the space, many of the children asked if we could create the village again. “Of course we can” I said, “just give it a little time.” As the last piece of cardboard was cleared away and the outside space was returned to its original form, we all moved on to other projects. 

Cardboard and its many uses will still be in our future. New homes and other creations will continue to be made from this magical material. A material filled with potential and possibilities for the entire learning community.