In December of 2012, the above piece of cardboard sold at a Sotheby’s auction for 23,750 USD. This is not some early Rachel Whitehead sculpture – nope – it is immediately recognizable as a magnetic striped financial transaction card like the credit, debit, and gift cards found in wallets everywhere. This specific piece was IBM’s first prototype for the credit card, made around 1960, and some financial history buff just had to have it.

I don’t expect my students to produce cardboard prototypes that we’ll take to auction houses immediately. But I do hope that my students end up making things which they’re proud of, which play a role in their own history, and which are priceless to them.

Cardboard is a perfect maker material: it’s cheap, abundant, easy to work with, safe, lightweight, familiar, and recyclable. Because cardboard is awesomely low-tech, there are millions of images, web sites, videos, pinterest boards, etc devoted to cardboard creations: inspiration is everywhere. From Caine’s Arcade (below) to the Global Cardboard Challenge – you only need to gather some materials, and let your students go.


  1. You’d think the first item on the list is simple: cardboard… you’re not wrong, but there are a few different types of cardboard to consider. Cardboard is paper that is heaver than 200 grams per square meter. There is cardstock, honeycomb board, corrugated cardboard, and chipboard (which is different from the plywood made from wood chips and glue). Each have their different purposes and uses… but differentiating based on type of cardboard is an advanced class – for now, any cardboard will do.
  2. Cutting Tools: Scissors are great – but paper cutting scissors or kitchen scissors will dull out quickly. You need some heavy duty scissors – like Fiskars Amplify Mixed Media Shears. Utility blades are also a great option for cutting on flat surfaces (with something underneath). If you go the utility blade route – there’s a much greater chance of you or your student getting cut… badly. If you’re just cutting cereal boxes – an electronic paper cutter like a Cricut will work – but if you want to cut thicker material, you may be looking at laser cutters. Both of these options are not cheap – and probably not necessary unless you’re working on a serious prototype.
  3. Shaping the cardboard: here, you have the opportunity to really explore and play. This is a great math activity – how to transform an essentially two dimensional sheet into a three dimensional object. There’s a ton of cool visual/spatial work going on in during the design process. There are also paper craft-specific softwares like Pepakura which will do the 2D to 3D work for you. Pepakura will also connect your students with other paper craft projects and photos – which is nice. Inspiration is great – so long as you fix or make an idea better… borrowing ideas is all good in my book.

Curricular Applications

Math: Students can construct different objects to explore concepts like area, perimeter and volume. Students will see that objects of different areas and volume will fit inside larger objects – even if the shape is different (they can cut up one shape to “fit the pieces” in another). There are a number of data collection, statistical analysis, and number operation opportunities presented throughout the process that making and authentic numeracy go hand in hand.

Science: The design process is an important element in all Science curricula. Furthermore, if you have a time crunch to meet curricular objectives – making can often allow students to combine previously separate tasks together… Example: “construct a weather instrument using at least three simple machines.”

Social Studies: replicating historical events, tools, technologies, has long been the bread and butter of the student making experience. Why not jazz it up and create an entire medieval feast complete with teddy bear jousting competitions? Ask your students – they’ll come up with something cool. My favourite activity was a Mesopotamian Museum project I did with a group of grade 8s. They made an object, told us a story, and toured each other’s exhibits. It was awesome.

Beyond a single subject – identify cross-curricular opportunities which making makes possible. Create a castle which can withstand a nerf gun attack (science – structures), must include a moat and a working drawbridge (simple machines), must be based on a historical castle (social studies)… keep track of the materials used, hours spent working, and design iterations (math)… the possibilities are endless.

I’m presenting at a home schooling conference in September on Maker Education. I have no doubt that I’ll be asked “cool – making seems great – but I don’t have the budget for 3D printers and Little Bits and Makey Makeys – how do I start?” “Cardboard folks – you can do everything you need to with cardboard.” Just. That. Simple.