Mimio Educator

What Cardboard Taught Me About Motivation and Learning

Posted by Kelly Bielefeld on Tue, Sep 20, 2016


A couple of years ago I came across a documentary-type video about a boy named Caine. The video, Caine’s Arcade, was simple enough, and the boy was engaging and adorable. The boy’s father had given him an opportunity that is sadly missing from many students’ lives.

The Opportunity Was Freedom
Caine’s dad allowed his son to learn freely, to create independently, and to foster his passion and curiosity. To summarize the video won’t do it justice, but here’s my attempt:  Nine-year-old Caine uses his creativity and initiative to create an arcade in his dad’s shop over one summer. The arcade was made primarily out of cardboard. Caine created all types of arcade games, along with prizes to be purchased with tickets won from the games. His goal was to create an actual arcade to which people would come and spend money.

So what does this child, who lived in the city and made a building out of cardboard in his dad’s shop, teach us about motivation and learning? A great deal, actually! 


What We Can Learn About Motivation
Here are some conclusions about motivation that can be drawn from following Caine’s Arcade:

  1. Freedom allows kids to learn by doing. Can you imagine how much this kid learned through this summer? One of the gifts his dad gave him was to allow his son’s imagination to take shape (quite literally). What if we allowed students the freedom to build, learn, rebuild, relearn, and refine the products they are passionate about? These are higher levels of learning (analysis and creation), not just memorizing facts.
  2. When we follow our passion and gifts, it doesn’t feel like “work.” School, at least in its current format, cannot be 100% “passion and gift” all the time for students, but it doesn’t need to be 0% either. If teachers do not know what their students are passionate about, something is broken from the get-go.
  3. Support matters – even if that support means staying out of the way. Caine’s dad not only allowed him the space, time, and materials to create. He also gave him the freedom to fail. If something didn’t work, if the machine broke, it was Caine’s job to troubleshoot and fix it.

What happened next was also pretty remarkable. The video went viral and what Caine had created became a nationwide celebration of creativity. It moved from a garage to classrooms, then to a foundation and to nine other countries around the globe. Eventually it earned a trip to the White House for young Mr. Caine.

So now the part about student learning – what can we learn from this? Just create a viral video sensation and change the world...right?


What We Can Learn About Learning
Let’s start with the basics...

  1. As teachers, we need to offer more opportunities for student “freedom” in the classroom. More choices, more projects, more self-directed behavior. As adults, and especially as teachers, we covet freedom. Teachers love to have the freedom to create, act, and change as needed to meet the needs of teachers. We must allow our students the same freedoms. 
  1. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It is critical for students to have authentic tools in their hands: computers, robots, machines, and paint brushes. But it isn’t essential all of the time. Students can build things out of recycled materials (like cardboard), or make rockets out of two-liter bottles. Learning through doing doesn’t require a large budget, and it often requires more creativity on the learner’s end.
  1. Problem solving and creativity go hand in hand. Too often educators think of creativity as painting a van Gogh or sculpting something out of chicken wire. Creativity should be fostered in our writing, in our science, and in our projects and presentations. We can teach design and visual arts to students so they can apply their learning across the world.

After some of my teachers watched the Caine’s arcade video, our school decided to participate in the Cardboard Challenge (which is coming up again, October 1, 2016). The students created arcade games for the Halloween party that year, so our timing didn’t align with the Day of Play or the International Cardboard Challenge. We still had a great time learning and trying out our games on the other students in the school.

The students worked together on these contraptions and learned a great deal in the process. There was negotiating about points, timing, and scoring. There was taping, gluing, and re-taping. In the end, on the day we all “played” the games, there were still adjustments and learning was still going on. These games weren’t “for a grade,” in the sense that we wanted an end product. What we wanted was a successful product and the learning to come from that. There was a sort of “publishing” to the wider audience, which also created meaning for the students. They didn’t want their game to fail or be boring in the eyes of the customers. 

So whether it’s a cardboard arcade, a science fair, or a museum that students create, if we can provide freedom, tap into their passions, and create meaning in what they do, amazing things can happen.

Want to learn more about how to become involved in the cardboard challenge and grow creative play at your school?Check out the Imagination Foundation website to learn how this movement is going global, and you can be part of it.>>


Topics: curriculum, Games, The Maker Movement


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