3 Ways a Cardboard Box Can Encourage STEM and STEAM Learning

Klutz's Maker in Residence (and father of two) Owen Keating explains why a simple cardboard box can be a powerful STEM and STEAM learning tool.
By Owen Keating
Nov 05, 2018
3 Ways a Cardboard Box Can Encourage STEM and STEAM  Learning

Nov 05, 2018

In our increasingly digital world, the need for STEM and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) jobs is expected to increase over two hundred percent by 2030. So how do you prepare your kids for this future? 

Give them a cardboard box.

Now that might sound crazy — how’s a box supposed to teach engineering? — but the biggest part of STEM and STEAM learning is that it aligns with the way we work and problem solve everyday. We pull from all of our experience and knowledge when making something, and the more kids are exposed to this type of thinking, the easier it will be for them as they grow up. As the Maker in Residence at Klutz, my job is to turn everyday materials (like cardboard) into really cool projects that kids will have fun building. (One example: Our Klutz Maker Lab: Circuit Games activity kit.) I’m also the father of two girls, ages 6 and 9, and they’re a constant source of creative inspiration for me in terms of what kids actually want to build and have fun with.

MORE: Use STEAM Skills to Make Mobius Strip Mobiles

Here's how a cardboard box (or just a piece of cardboard) can teach kids STEM and STEAM lessons:

1: It encourages unstructured playtime

Thinking “outside-the-box” isn’t just a common saying—it’s a mindset that’s developed. Having your kids to play without set rules or guidelines encourages their imagination and independence. A spaceship? A house? Or maybe they’re like my daughter and turn it into a pirate ice cream truck. No matter what it is, transforming a cardboard box requires kids to take stock of what they have and make a plan to turn the vision they have in their heads into a finished project.

2: It's a break from screen time

There are some great STEM and STEAM TV shows for kids, but for those times when you want a screen-free activity, give your kids a box. They'll be in for hours of screen-free play. We built a marble run a couple years ago (see the photo above) and my girls actually still play with it! They dictated the design and I did the cutting and hot gluing. It’s a great family activity because everyone can work together and it exposes kids to the design process. 

3: It provides hands-on learning

What happens when you cut a window here? Make a door here? Kids may not know it, but by physically changing the structure of the box they’re engaging in engineering. The idea is that you can take a pile of old boxes (basically trash) and turn them into something that's easy to work, using basic tools that kids can handle. The accessibility of cardboard makes it a great first material for kids to build something three-dimensional and large-scale. 

So the next time you're about to break down a box and stick it in the recycling bin, give it to your kids instead. And keep in mind that cardboard isn't the only household object that can teach a STEAM lesson — you can also try this fun food craft to teach kids about tessellations, or math mosiacs, using...pasta! 

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