Cardboard and Engineering Challenges: Easy, At-Home Learning Opportunities!

Age Range: 5-12 years old; All Ages
Time: 1 hour
Program Type: Drop-In; Registration; At Home

As many families begin a new homeschooling, virtual school, and/or hybrid learning adventure this year, I wanted to talk about a couple of programs I’ve offered at the library that facilitate cross-curricular, open-ended learning. And the best part? They are so easy to pull off at home!

Cardboard Challenge

For several years now, our library has offered the Cardboard Challenge every October. You can find out more about how this challenge started on their website. We have always hosted it as an all ages event and encouraged families to build together. Children learn so much, especially when working alongside an adult who can scaffold the child through the difficult parts. And we’ve seen some really amazing creations over the years!

I usually start sourcing cardboard and other odds and ends from our staff about a month out from these programs. Now they just bring me odd and interesting boxes and things throughout the year because they know I’ll find a use for them at some point. (Sometimes it pays to hoard things.) The beautiful thing about doing these programs at home is that you can use whatever you have available. There are no rules!

Materials we’ve provided:
-cardboard boxes of various shapes, sizes, and colors
-small, flat pieces of cardboard
-bubble wrap, styrofoam, and other packing materials
-cardboard tubes
-plastic bottles and bottle caps
-craft sticks
-yarn, string, rope, etc.
-scissors (kid- and adult-sized)
-box cutters (Kid-friendly ones can be ordered here.)
-hot glue guns (MUST be used by adult or with adult supervision)
-school glue
-all sorts of tape (duct, Scotch, masking, etc.)
-rubber bands
-paper clips
-egg cartons
-books for inspiration

We’ve seen robots, furniture, forts (check out my Family Fort Night post for examples!), costume pieces, and all sorts of other wonderful creations come out of this program. I’ve never put a theme or a challenge to it other than simply, “See what you can create!” It allows imaginations to run wild and lots of opportunities for creative expression.

Engineering Challenges

Using most of the same materials listed above, we hosted several engineering challenge programs during Build a Better World summer reading a few years back. This program was narrowed to just school age children. The concept was, once again, elegantly simple. I laid out all the various materials in one central location, I split the children into three groups, and every twenty minutes they rotated to a new station with a new challenge. We’d have a short debriefing between each task to see how the groups fared before they rotated.

The three challenges I had them work on were as follows:

-How tall can you build?

-Can you build a rollercoaster for a ping pong ball? The ball must get from beginning to end using only its own momentum.

-Can you build a structure that supports the weight of these books?

Extra materials we provided for these challenges were:
-ping pong balls (for testing purposes)
-clothes pins
-wine corks
-drinking straws

Here are just a few concepts that children are learning as they work through these challenges.

There is so much value in the conversations children have during these types of exercises. They learn to share and implement each other’s ideas, give and follow instructions, take initiative, and work together toward a common goal.

Problem Solving
Children have to learn to rethink their ideas and try new options if they aren’t successful right away. It challenges their brains to come up with multiple solutions, and they practice the scientific method by testing out different strategies and accounting for variables in their experiments.

Emotional Intelligence
Children may fail. Sometimes they aren’t able to figure it out in the allotted time. Learning to cope with that and think about how they could handle it differently the next time around is super important. Often, when talking with a group about what went wrong, it’s usually not that they didn’t have good ideas. It’s often that they couldn’t agree on whose idea to implement, everyone went their separate ways, and no one was able to finish even one thing. They learn the value of listening, sharing, and sometimes, yes, failing (and learning from it). I’ve also seen children bolster the spirits of their frustrated teammates by pitching in to help or ask them questions. That’s a priceless interaction to behold.

Other skills
-making sketches and blueprints
-conservation of materials (Sometimes they have a really good idea, but not enough of the stuff to make it happen!)

I would highly suggest having programs like this at your own library or with your children at home! They are practically no-cost and the kids love to be creative with open-ended materials! (It doesn’t hurt that there is usually a big mess involved too!)

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