Recycled cardboard is one of my favourite materials for children’s art activities. I like it because it is:
- Easily available to everyone
- Cheap or free to get. This means that parents or teachers that don’t have a budget for materials can still use it
- Encourages the reuse of something that would otherwise be thrown away
In this post, I share an art activity that can do be done using recycled cardboard. It is best suited to kids aged 2 to 10 years old but can be adapted to any age.
The activity is perfect to do at home or in the classroom!
Designing the art activity
When I am putting together a children’s art activity, I always start off brainstorming the following three questions:
- What materials do I have available or what I can afford to buy?
- What are the interests of the kids I am working with?
- How have different artists used the selected material in their art?
For example, lots of different contemporary artists and designers have used cardboard in their work. If you have a look at this installation by Michelangelo Pistoletto (below), the artist uses large sheets of cardboard to construct a maze-like sculpture that people can walk through:
Another example of how cardboard has been used in an innovative way can be seen in the work of Carlos Bunga. Carlos created the installation ‘The Architecture of Life’ (2019) which features large-scale constructions that he made by mounting, sticking and stacking cardboard in unusual ways.
The following steps can be taken to put together an open-ended cardboard art activity with children:
Step 1: Collect the cardboard
In the week leading up to the activity, try collecting different types of cardboard and storing it in a corner of your house. Delivery boxes, cereal boxes, cardboard tubes and even bits of used cardboard paper are perfect. If you are stuck for where to find these, have a read of this post on how to collect children’s art materials on a budget.
Step 2: Layout the cardboard in usual ways
A few years ago, I heard someone at the Tinkering Studio say: “to encourage children’s creativity, you need to use familiar materials in unfamiliar ways.”This is the perfect motto for setting up your cardboard so that it is ready for children’s play. When I was setting up this activity, I selected a combination of larger boxes and a roll of brown paper that I wrapped around a painting easel. I also set up the cardboard so that it encouraged social interactions between children.
For example, I chose not to have individual ‘work stations’ but large boxes that multiple children could play with at the same time. You may also select a few tools such as scissors, staplers, sticky tape or my favourite, Makedo that can be used in the activity. I would recommend only putting out one tool to start with. For example, the Makedo and then adding in the others later depending on the kid’s interests.
Step 3: Let children explore the material
Invite the kids in and let them play around with what you have setup. Different children will approach playing with the cardboard in different ways. For example, some may use this step to draw a design for what they would like to make with the cardboard (pictured below). Or others may like to just get cutting and constructing.
Step 4: Observe and introduce new techniques, tools and ideas
Okay, this is the tricky step! It involves standing back and watching what the kids do with the cardboard and responding by introducing new techniques, tools and ideas when appropriate. The motivation behind doing this is so that kids can use the information to make their learning more complex over time.
Try your best not to tell children exactly what they need to make with the cardboard as it can restrict their creative process. However, it might be necessary to do this if the child learns best in situations that have more structure.
This ‘scaffolding’ will vary dramatically depending on your child’s age, interest and abilities. For example, depending on the child’s current level of knowledge, you could introduce fold, curl or loop the cardboard to great different effects. See the diagram below for ideas on construction techniques that can be used with cardboard.
In this step, children may produce a final artwork. Alternatively, they may not make any final creation but just enjoy the process of playing with the cardboard. Either outcome is totally fine!
Step 5: Share and reflect on the creative process
A final conversation may help children to make new insights on their creative process. Questions such as, “can you tell me what was tricky playing with the cardboard?” may encourage deeper reflections than “did you like it?”
Why is cardboard so good for children’s creative learning?
Cardboard is a very versatile material. It comes in a range of sizes and widths that means it can be used in different ways. Cardboard, like many other tactile materials, allows children to learn through their senses and through their engagement with hands-on making.
There you go – a step by step guide to get you started with doing your own cardboard construction activity with kids.
You can play around with these different steps and add in a few more if you like! As you gain more confidence, you may look at how different artists’ have used cardboard in unusual ways. Then this can be a new starting point for considering what new techniques, tools and ideas can be introduced to children.
For more creative inspiration on how cardboard can be used in art activities, check out my Pinterest board of contemporary artworks make from cardboard.