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Cardboard Arcade

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

It all started one day when we all noticed the trash was piling up on the street...

The Inspiration

I feel like it's been a decade at least of watching other teachers host a cardboard arcade in their classroom, and every time I thought, "That looks awesome, but also like WAY too much work." I couldn't wrap my mind around how those teachers not only collected all of the materials, but also organized and distributed them, not to mention getting their students to the skill level to be able to design, construct, test, and modify their designs independently. One day, however, it became apparent that the huge piles of trash on the sides of the roads in town were growing and that curbside pickup of the garbage in town had stopped. We had no idea why this was happening at the time, but one thing I did know (as did everyone else with a nose) was that this trash issue was a huge stinking problem. We taught mini-lessons about reducing single-use items, created posters and signs to remind kids and families to reduce their waste, and we started a pile in the makerspace area of our room of clean garbage that we could potentially reuse. Watching that pileup, combined with a very eager and supportive parent volunteer (thank goodness for energetic parent volunteers!), was the motivation I needed to finally get on this cardboard arcade bandwagon.

The Unit

Teachers, this was the part I had been dreading -- actually moving from the deciding part to the planning part and into the doing part. It actually turned out to be easier than I had imagined; however, you're here to see the unit and get your own ideas so I'll jump right to it.


We launched this unit right around St. Patrick's Day and this was intentional. I needed to see what my kids (multiage 1st-5th) could do independently so I devised a pre-assessment in which they would use makerspace materials (cardboard, paper towel rolls, rubber bands, tape, scissors, paper, glue, etc.) to design and set up a leprechaun trap.

The Pre-Assessment: Buy-in was easy because we spent time during ELA that day reading and writing about leprechaun folklore. The kids were eager to develop their trap designs and visualize how it would work.

1. We searched images online of other kids' leprechaun traps and tried to reverse-engineer them through discussion as a whole group. Why do you think they used these colors? Why is there a ladder there? How might a tiny leprechaun get tricked into entering here?

2. After that discussion, we think-pair-shared our own ideas. I roved the room to ensure everyone had a small idea of what style they might try to model theirs after, and asked probing questions when I heard potential problems (eg. "I'm going to use a laser that triggers a sliding glass door that..." and I would say, "Wow! That sounds amazing! Before you start, take a look at the materials and time available to you...")

3. Then the students got to building. I didn't limit their access to the materials, nor did I direct them to "share" or ration what was available. I noted which students were quick to take and which sat back patiently. This would be important later in small group assignments. I took other notes as well while they were building:

Did anyone already know attachment techniques (flanges, l-braces, slots, tabs, etc.)?

Where did they get stuck?

How did they run into conflict?

What problem-solving steps did they take?

How many of them made use of the engineering design process?


The lessons began the next day after students saw how their traps had been "triggered" by the leprechaun. We debriefed what went to plan and what didn't, and this is when I re-introduced the engineering design process. On the teacher-prep side, my parent volunteer was busy collecting tons of recyclables and reusables. We also put a blurb in the family newsletter asking parents to send in materials from home. An area of the classroom was designated to hold, sort, and organize these materials as they came in. Our parent volunteer and several of the older students took lead on this task. Each of the following lessons were 90 minutes consisting of a 20-minute lesson, modeling, and fishbowl activity; followed by 50 minutes of creating and play; and finally, a 20-minute share-out, closure, and clean-up.

Lesson 1: What process can we use to engineer effective designs?

Lesson 2: What does it mean to brainstorm?

Lesson 3: What are some example games that use simple machines?

This lesson was taught by my parent volunteer!

Lesson 4: How can a prototype help communicate a vision?

Lesson 5: In what ways can people combine simple machines to design games?

This lesson was taught by my parent volunteer!

Lesson 6: How is engineering related to our emotions?

Open Workshops 1 & 2: Students had the entire period to work while teachers roved and assisted primarily through small-group socratic-style questioning. I'll explain this a bit more here: when students are free to work, they have access to the entire classroom space wherever they are comfortable.

Carnival Day: This was the best part by far! The kids were SO excited to play their games and have people experience what they had created. The joy and peer-to-peer support was beyond what I could have imagined.


To summarize this unit, we met in circle to debrief. This part of the unit is essential because it helps the students align their experience with the theory that had been built up along the way. We used a few discussion strategies to organize the summary: 1. Group Chat: For the group chat, students sat together in the circle and just casually chatted in conversation with those around them, prompted only by the question, "Turn and talk to those around you; how did the carnival go?" As teachers, we roved the outside of the circle and dropped in to conversations here and there with little comments ("Oh, yeah, that was so cool!" or "Whoa, I didn't even notice that!"). Once it seemed like the din was started to settle, we gave a minute warning and then pulled the attention back to the circle facilitator.

2. Whip Around: At this point, we prompted the students to think of one word that summarized the experience of the carnival for the whip around. Students would say just their one word aloud and then the next person would speak. After the whip around, we prompted hand-raise (teacher facilitated, students speak when they have something to contribute) and hand-off (student facilitated, students speak when they have something to contribute) discussion. As the facilitator, I asked a series of questions:

a. What did you notice about the whip around? Mostly positive, neutral, or negative?

b. Did you hear any of the words repeat? Why do you think that is?

c. Did you hear anything that concerned or worried you about how your classmate experienced the carnival? How should we respond to those experiences?

Question (c) here is very important. If anyone shared a negative experience, we want to make sure to notice and teach students an appropriate way to show compassion. For example, "I noticed a classmate of ours chose the word 'embarrassing'. For me, feeling embarrassed is a negative feeling; I don't enjoy it. When you have an experience that is embarrassing, what do you hope happens? How can we respond to that experience? Is there something we should have differently?"

3. Share & Pass: In this format, we pass a "talking stick" around the circle one last time. Students can share a thought or question with the group and decide to facilitate discussion or just speak to be heard. All people without the stick listen and the the one with the stick speaks. This provides time for students to hear and be heard.

All in all, the way we created our Cardboard Arcade and built up this unit was super successful albeit slightly intimidating! I learned you can never have too many adult volunteers for this one AND that the kids will create total and complete magic if given the opportunity. 10/10 highly recommend this unit!

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