Thinking Outside the Box

This year, the children were given time to imagine how they might create a playscape that children of all ages and abilities would enjoy. They brainstormed ideas on sticky notes, drew individual sketches, shared their ideas with teammates, created a plan, and began construction. They visited Jonathan’s Dream Playground in West Hartford for inspiration, and a Renbrook fifth grade team was chosen to travel to Wesleyan University to present their cardboard playscape prototype to Renbrook parent, Greg Toth’s  engineering and design class. The Wesleyan students chose the fifth grade prototype as one of their projects for the semester. Their task is to build a scale model of the playscape for Renbrook School. 

The Renbrook School Cardboard Challenge is a fall tradition, one that the children look forward to each year. So many ask me, with excitement and anticipation in their voices, as we’re taking down the current masterpieces, “What are we going to do next year? “When can we go to the Makerspace again?” Or, “Can I make a makerspace at my house?”

Alexandra Lange wrote in her June 7, 2018 NY Times article,Magic of a Cardboard Box, “The box is an avatar of inspiration, no charging required. Cardboard is the ideal material for creativity; cardboard creations become more sophisticated as children gain skills: It is as malleable as the body and the mind.”

The Cardboard Challenge is a wonderful community event, but it is so much more. A lot of thinking “outside the box” goes on behind the scenes. The Cardboard Challenge is a vehicle in which to instill a maker mindset in all students-one that transcends working in a makerspace or STEAM lab. What is a maker mindset? It’s a person who has a willingness to try things out and take creative risks; who understands that mistakes are part of the process; who has the ability to see things differently; has curiosity about how things work; who has empathy for an audience; who takes initiative; and who understands how to navigate systems.  Most importantly, they are doers-producers rather than consumers who see themselves as capable of making a difference in the world.

I believe that it’s our responsibility as adults- parents and educators- to develop and nurture the maker mindset in our children. We need to model these thinking dispositions in our daily interactions with them. We need to open our minds to different approaches to solving problems, to veer off from the tried and true, to be ok with not having all the answers, and to give ourselves unstructured time, disconnected from our devices to allow for “thinking outside the box.”

It is inspiring to engage with students displaying aspects of the maker mindset while working on the Cardboard Challenge. Here’s what I see: students working together on teams toward a common goal, students in control of the process and product (student agency), students repurposing everyday items to fit their needs and students displaying resilience when things aren’t working the way they had hoped.  I also see camaraderie, engagement, creativity, resourcefulness, kindness, empathy and joy!

I imagine these students as adults sitting with teams in their workplaces someday discussing ideas for new products or solutions to a global challenge. They might even think back to their Cardboard Challenge days at Renbrook while sitting there “thinking outside the box!”
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