Children and Cardboard Boxes

In addition to this blog I have been posting a few times at the Cooperative Catalyst blog, which is a fantastic forum to read various opinions on how we can transform education. The educators have vast experience and pour their hearts out in every post. This post I originally posted on the Cooperative Catalyst blog and wanted to share with you.

Give a child a cardboard box and magic happens.

The ratty, old box becomes an airplane and the child the pilot or a hospital and the child the doctor. The cardboard box takes them on adventures and helps them explore imaginary places in their minds. The cardboard box brings them joy and inspires creativity and imagination. With a few tools, they are inspired to build upon, transform, and reinvent their cardboard boxes.

Then our children are sent to schools….

which replace the former boxes. They are taught that learning happens within walls. They are taught to learn a certain way. They must sit in uncomfortable desks for long periods of time. They must remain silent and do work. They must follow the rules and stay away from the Internet. They must stop playing and daydreaming and listen to their teachers. They must sit for hours and fill out the bubbles of a test and if they don’t do it correctly then they’re forced to repeat the gruesome cycle for another year. This type of education prepares them to work in cubicles. The children who are unfortunate to be born in bad neighborhoods suffer the worst of schooling. Their schools often look like prisons. This type of education prepares them to be in prisons. In general, most of our students are learning to follow the rules, listen to authority, and forget the imagination and creativity they had as children with cardboard boxes.

Many of us have heard Sir Ken Robinson’s message, “Schools kill creativity.” This is the problem, but what is the solution?

We want our children to be creative and create. We shouldn’t want them to think outside the cardboard box; we should want them to transform and revolutionize the box just like they used to do with cardboard boxes. See, we inherently are gifted with the ability to dream. When we are children even in the worst conditions we still come out dreaming and seeing the world as it should be. Our imaginations take us to better worlds and we dream idealistically. We don’t see the barriers of reality placed by others. We don’t just see ratty, old boxes.

This is the problem, but what is the solution? So how do we as educators ensure our schools don’t kill creativity? How do we become catalysts for change?

How do we begin to reverse the damage of schooling?

We need to find ways to convince teachers not on this forum to use technology not because our students use it or will be expected to in their careers. We need to convince teachers to use technology to tear down our classroom walls. Use technology to show students that their voices can travel the world just like ours voices do when we tweet, update a status on Facebook, share a blog post, or collaborate on a ning. We need to convince teachers to use technology to motivate students to continuously research and to show them that their work transcends beyond the class bulletin board.

We need to convince teachers to develop Personal/Passionate Learning Networks (PLNs) so they hear these messages and learn to reflect and evolve their instructional practices.

These aren’t the only solutions, just the beginning.

Yet, how do we inspire teachers to react and act?

How do we go beyond spreading the word through blogs, conferences, and workshops and get teachers to act?

I believe we have educator leaders in our Personal Learning Networks (PLN) who get buy-in. Here are things I have seen them do:

  • They are passionate in their writing and presentations.
  • They show real examples of how these ideas impact students.
  • They commit personal time to ensuring the educators they speak to have the resources to carry out the action. Often this is in a wiki or posted on their blogs.
  • They record their presentations and spread them. We should never be embarrassed to be viral. I don’t see this as self-promotion. We need to be louder and not worry about offending others. In fact, we will offend others, because anyone changing a system does. We want our messages spread. Celebrities and even our youth do not find any shame in putting up their videos on Youtube, etc. That is why they go viral or become trending topics.
  • They research the art of giving presentations. They watch the TED Talks and read books and blogs on this subject.
  • They read books and blogs by revolutionary thinkers.

Does this describe you? Were you a bit embarrassed to think it did? Don’t be! We need educator leaders to be fed up, stand up, and begin spreading a message of change. We need the goal to inspire reaction and action. So now how do we as educator leaders begin to collaborate and add power to this message?


Let’s collaborate to find a way to change the system.

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  • August 20, 2010 - 20:08 | Permalink

    This is a great children’s book! Imagine a world filled with children & cardboard boxes! This does really make me think about the creative avenues, movies in particular, that are not very creative. The number of movies that are remade in the past few years, particularly horror movies. Even if you look at what is on TV…most of our programming is “ripped off” from other countries. Have we squashed the joy of play & creativity? And in doing so, have we taught our children to just spit back what we’ve told / shown them?

    It is my hope that we getting to that point of “No More” & demanding change from the bottom up. Yet, how do we “fight the establishment” & maintain our jobs? What is a teacher if they are not allowed to teach?

    • August 21, 2010 - 00:50 | Permalink


      I think many educators worry about keeping their jobs yet transforming the establishment. That is the key question, isn’t it? I’ve been fortunate to get my administrators on board by showing my students’ projects and outcomes. I think modeling then showing examples can be really powerful. Administrators want to keep their jobs, too, so we just need to assure them that what we’re doing is helping students learn. We also need to show them students are more motivated this way.

  • August 21, 2010 - 01:14 | Permalink

    Hi Shelly…

    Great post. Sparking creativity and engaging students in learning is critical. Technology is one tool that may help us inspire our young learners.

    Your post title reminded me of the power of play in learning too. And it made me think of a teacher in our district who holds a Cardboard Box night. It is for parents and kids to have fun together being creative with a cardboard box. Each family brings a box which each proceeds to transform into some imaginative place, vehicle, or object. At the end of the evening they share what they have created. The ideas of course are many and very wonderful!

    I agree Shelly there are many teacher leaders in our PLN and that if we can show others how we are engaging our own students we can begin to make change!

    Thanks for your thoughts,

    • August 21, 2010 - 02:06 | Permalink


      That is such a great idea! I just love that! A Cardboard Box night for the family. This helps engage parents and helps them be creative with their children. We need more things like this to improve the school culture and hidden curriculum. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  • August 21, 2010 - 14:42 | Permalink


    I like the sentiment of your post. I tweeted a number of quotes from it, infact. I loved your clever use of transferring from one box of pure imagination to the imprisoning box of school walls. It reminded me of a shocking quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. “Public school is 12 years long because that’s how long it takes to break a child’s spirit.”


    However, I’ve also heard it said that in our society “the scientific method is the new God.” This seems true. This is the reasoning behind the universally despised standardized tests (do we know ANYONE who is says, “Wow! Isn’t it great how well these NCLB tests are working out!?!”). We need to measure and quantify the progress and current knowledge of our students, because that is just how things if we want to be “scientific.”

    Thus, without throwing out the scientific method, and thus our society, which ironically has lead to the advent of most resources mentioned that teachers must utilize to spread seeds of change, what options are we left with?

    I believe the answer is the solution to most of life’s problems: compromise.

    Yes, sadly, we must keep the tests. However, our challenge is to improve them. This is already happening, albeit very slowly. The addition of essays is a relatively new. Surely a step in the right direction compared to the previous decade’s tests with ONLY multiple choice tests, right? We must push to make the tests measurements of things that COUNT (all teachers know the difference between merely “test prep skills” and quality learning).

    Also, we must make our test preparatory lessons (which are sadly a must in most public schools) into fun, interesting, rich, dynamic, empowering, QUALITY lessons AT THE SAME TIME. This is the challenge of the new generation of teacher.

    Of course we can do it! I know because myself and a few colleagues do it almost everyday in class. I can tell you are passionate about education too, so I’m sure you do it as well.

    I am new to blogging (started two weeks ago) but I look forward to reading and responding to the thoughts of you and your subscribers as we all learn to fix our cardboard box less school system TOGETHER.

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  • brunoandrade82
    August 21, 2010 - 17:30 | Permalink

    Shelly.. girl you nailed it!
    We shouldn’t force the use of technology in class just for the sheer motive of kids’ devotion to it. Technology is here to break barries and that’s what’s is supposed to do.
    The idea of having a cardbox night is great and will certainly try it out.
    Moreover, I’ll print this and post it in my teachers’ room. Educators should reflect on what they have been doing concerning this.
    I’ve been struggling with all my strenght to get technology a plausible activity in class. Here in Brazil things happen very slow and there are mane drawbacks. However, I strongly believe it’s possible to change this scenerio. Count on me!
    p.s tks for everything!

    • October 5, 2010 - 16:05 | Permalink

      Thank you for your motivating words and sharing with your teachers. If you need any help in your endeavor to motivate the teachers around you just ask! :-)

  • August 21, 2010 - 19:19 | Permalink

    Your introduction reminded me of a particular Spongebob Squarepants cartoon episode where Spongebob and his best friend,Patrick, tried to get their neighbor,Squidworth, to play with them in their cardboard box. Squidworth only sees reality, only the cardboard box, and is trapped by his inability to imagine and create something new. A major part of his inability stems from fear, fear of looking foolish in front of others. And I think that great teachers work to eradicate that fear in students, and in themselves by taking that risk to try something new, something different, and accept the fact that part of that risk can either lead to looking foolish or to another adventure.

    • October 5, 2010 - 16:04 | Permalink

      Hi Cheska!

      I’m a huge Spongebob fan and glad you brought this episode up! We learn best from mistakes and looking foolish. The first flight wouldn’t have occurred otherwise :-) A great point made! Thanks!

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  • August 22, 2010 - 09:33 | Permalink

    Thanks for your well thought out and interesting comments (found at, Shelly. I especially like the idea of measuring a success in the classroom by the amount of progress made, as opposed to hitting a target score. From what I have heard about Obama’s Race to the Top that is what the new focus of American standardized tests will be. I hope that is true.

    It’s clear that we both agree that the world is too diverse of a place for anything standardized. One size does NOT fit all in education.

    When you talked about “the students who needed accountability years ago” you accurately described the situation of my students at East Newark Public School (ENPS). ENPS is a low-income, urban school district where nearly every student arrives as an English language learner, some without any previous education experience, and then he or she moves back out of the district after only a few years. How could my students possibly compete with teachers in my wife’s school where students have been prepped for the best high schools in New Jersey since birth, with a separate, private tutor for each subject in school!? Yet we both take the same NCLB test and are required to hit the same score. Therefore, I certainly agree that focusing on improvement rather than an arbitrary score especially important.

    In reality, what more can we ask of our students other than to do their best?

    So again, I agree when you say we need reform. However, the reform you are looking for seems to be more like a storming of the educational Bastille. As a history teacher I admire the bravery and conviction of the American and French revolutionaries, but they succeeded only because revolt was their last resort. I suppose the biggest difference between you and I is that you seem to believe all other options have been exhausted.

    Regardless of our minor differences of how to get reform, I respect and admire your ideas/ideals. I look forward to reading your future posts and watching the implementation of your educational call to arms.

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