Media & Techniques

Cardboard Creations (Ep. 215)

In today’s episode, guest host Jonathan Juravich shares his love for all things cardboard. Kaitlyn Edington (Art With Mrs. E) joins him to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the material, its myriad of uses in the art room, and how simple materials can allow creativity to flourish. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Jonathan: Several years ago, I was at my state Art Education Association Conference and a fellow teacher came up to me, took me by the shoulders and said, “Your presentation last year on cardboard changed my life.” At first, it was all I could do not to laugh, thinking back to a presentation I had given a year prior on creative uses for cardboard. Then she started, she shared about her complete lack of a school budget, her feelings of defeat and then the creative kickstart she received from that presentation. She realized that she had it in her, not to give up. Who knew? For me, the use of cardboard is about creativity and the beautiful aesthetics of that soft brown. For her, it was about a great financial need. For another art teacher friend, the use of cardboard is rooted in conservation. Whatever your reason might be, art teachers love cardboard.

Hi, my name is Jonathan Juravich. I’m an elementary art educator, host of the Art of Education University’s Podcast, The Art of SEL, a fellow lover of cardboard and today’s guest host for Everyday Art Room. The past 18 months have led to a lot of online shopping, piles of boxes fortifying our front doors. But where do you begin with all of that cardboard? I sat down for a lively conversation with Kaitlyn Edington. Her fans know her from her Instagram handle, Art with Mrs. E. She’s an elementary educator in my beautiful hometown of Pittsburgh. We discussed the pandemic, piles of shoe boxes and the benefits and challenges of this plentiful supply.

So Kaitlyn, for my podcast, The Art of SEL, I always start each episode and interview by asking my guests to share how they’re feeling, to get in touch with their emotions and their experiences. So give me a descriptive word to explain how you’re feeling?

Kaitlyn: Jonathan, this is kind of dangerous in 2021 [laughter].

Jonathan: I know, right?

Kaitlyn: I would say, I’m a little overwhelmed right now, a little bit. But I mean, obviously we know the kids are always the reason why we’re there. So if any time I’m with my students that any overwhelm does seem to dissipate but I think we all just feel like we have so much to do and, of course, never enough time. So that’s where I’ve been feeling lately but … So a little overwhelmed but trying not to let it dim my sparkle too much.

Jonathan: Yeah. And I think that we can all relate, all of us, right?

Kaitlyn: Yeah.

Jonathan: That overwhelms also justifying that like, yeah, there’s also some sparkle still left in me, right?

Kaitlyn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jonathan: Well then, I want to have a very serious conversation about cardboard.

Kaitlyn: Ooh. You know what?

Jonathan: It’s like my favorite topic.

Kaitlyn: This is like 100% … Actually, you know what? Jonathan, I feel there’s so many parallels, we were just talking about the pandemic and cardboard. Because when I was thinking about our conversation today, I was like, “I think cardboard saved me and my children when we were quarantined.”

Jonathan: Yes.

Kaitlyn: That’s when I think is where I truly fell in love with never, ever let any bit of cardboard ever go to waste. Because we were in survival mode and it really, I think, I started with it at home with my kids and then it was easily just spilled over into my classroom. So I do think that it ties in.

Jonathan: Yeah. So what did that look like for you at home? How were you using it at home, that then it transferred into your classroom?

Kaitlyn: So I was already on maternity leave when the pandemic hit and I live in Pittsburgh, which we talked about earlier. And if anyone who’s never been to Pittsburgh before, I think winter in Pittsburgh is kind of the same as being on lockdown because it’s so miserable all the time and you don’t want to take your kids anywhere to get sick. So we were already in our own little winter quarantine with a newborn and I had a three-year-old at the time. And so when it got gross out, I just was like, “Okay, during nap time when baby would nap, me and my son would always do some kind of a project.” But it really, really revved up when the pandemic hit because, of course, we were ordering all these things on Amazon, excessive amounts of boxes were showing up.

And I just was like, “I’m just going to try to kill two birds with one stone.” So we would, every box that would come in, it was like, okay, I would give him designated art supplies. And I was like, “Okay, what are we going to turn this into?” But I would always start that with like, “What are we going to turn it into?” And he was four and, I mean like, oh, his imagination is just amazing. And so he’d be like, “Oh, this is a jet plane.” I’m like, “Okay, what do we need?” And we would just gather supplies and that was our survival mode.

It was amazing. And I was kind of shocked and slightly impressed with some of the things we would come up with, like it was his idea. And some days I was like, I was [inaudible 00:05:23] in and be like, “Okay, here’s some quick sticks or tape or whatever.” And then some days I’m like, “We have literally nowhere to go.” I have tempera paint here and I would lay down a drop cloth and one day we literally, well, I would say for three days we painted this huge Playhouse. And he painted the inside, I stuck him in the box. I’m like, “Here’s your paint, buddy.”

And he was just in underwear and just painting the whole inside. And I always do the outside and it was great. It was like, you know what? It really, the pandemic brought in just … The only thing that mattered was being super present. And I’m like, “I have this time, I’m home.” I was still on leave, so I wasn’t one of those … All these poor teachers who were trying to be with their kids and teach. I did have that blessing of, I only had to just take care of my kids and keep them away from my husband who was trying to work in the basement.

Jonathan: Right, yeah.

Kaitlyn: So, it was just so amazing to be present and just to realize, I have nothing but time. We can make this the most elaborate house in the world if we want to because tomorrow we’re still going to be in here and the next day and the next day-

Jonathan: We’re going to still use it.

Kaitlyn: … we’re going to just … And yeah, so it would be great. It would be three or four days of making it, then it was a whole nother week of playing in it. And then, once it was too big and we’d usually shove it in a closet for a couple weeks and he would play in it there and then a new box would show up and we’d be like, “What are we going to turn this …?” And we had a rule that like, if we were going to make something really big, we had to get rid of the other one or we had to recycle it, just so it wasn’t … So my husband wouldn’t completely kill me with everything and cardboard everywhere.

Jonathan: We did the same thing. Yeah, we had a cafe that we built in our living room and then a taco truck for my son and all out of cardboard. But very similarly because we live in this era where cardboard is plentiful. It is coming to our doors all the time. And, I mean, how do you know an art teacher, right? They’re the ones eyeing up the cardboard when it comes in, like, “Mm, this is a really good piece of cardboard, right?”

Kaitlyn: Exactly. And I already had that crazy hoarder, art teacher lady reputation at my school anyway. So I am no stranger to mysterious materials applying or appearing outside of my room. And there was little sticky notes that’s like, “I knew you’d be able to use this.” And I’m like, “Just bring it on in.” So I’ve already had that hoarder mentality anyway but it was like a real mom art teacher win at the same time when a box showed up and my son would be like, “What are we going to turn this into today, Mommy?” It was like, he was already like, “What are we going to turn this into?”

Nothing is ever wasted, so it’s gotten a little ridiculous. Now I just got a big supply order at school and I didn’t break down one box and I was stacking them and I’m like, “I’m taking these home, my son is going to love these.” And he did. We made a haunted house out it right before Halloween. So I love that he just gets so excited and you know that there’s that … We all know a kid that as they open a big present and there’s the thing and then they want the box instead. So it just provides literally endless opportunities and it can become any toy they want.

Jonathan: And it’s interesting because in our classrooms we oftentimes create these very structured or beautiful experiences. But I remember one year where a second grader said, “Are we going to use paper this year? All we’ve done is use cardboard.” And I was like-

Kaitlyn: Oh my gosh.

Jonathan: … “We might.”

Kaitlyn: Yeah.

Jonathan: Or I’m teaching you exactly what your son was experiencing, right? Or my own children at home, where it’s like, here is a readily available material around you that we, as our teachers see potential in and now we’re hopefully instilling in our students, that there’s potential all around them, right?

Kaitlyn: Oh, yeah. Yeah, definitely. And there are so many amazing books and things now that are really, just again, keep adding kindling to that imagination and just letting them know that like … I’m sure you’re familiar with the books, Iggy Peck, Architect and Aiden the Scientists and all those. And we have all those books and then there’s also a book called, Boxitects. I think it’s by Kim Smith. Yeah, it’s super adorable. Boxitects and we got it for my son and it’s basically this really sweet story about this little girl who loves building things out of cardboard.

But then there’s, even at the end of the book, how to build your own castle. And it’s step-by-step, little illustrations. And I think just, again, constantly … There’s another book, I am a maker. There’s just so many books that we already have available for our kids that I have in my classroom, too. So it’s just like, the more we can just let them know that this is so good for you and this is just going to help you forever, you know, forever to think outside the box.

And how can you turn things … I mean, just creativity is, it’s something you have to build up. You know what I mean? It’s obviously not something that is just like, “Oh, you’re so creative.” I actually can’t stand people say that.” I’m sorry, to you or to me. But it’s like, you have to work at that. That is a muscle you have to continually strengthen and the only way to keep doing that is by getting presented with a problem. And then you’re like, “Okay, how can I turn this into a solution in a different way?” You know? So, yeah.

Jonathan: Okay. So a book to check out that is super simple and very sweet is called, Not a Box.

Kaitlyn: Oh.

Jonathan: It’s so simple. But the idea is-

Kaitlyn: I’m writing it down.

Jonathan: Yeah. This little rabbit finds a box and it’s like, “It’s not a box, it’s a rocket ship.” And it’s on each page, this little rabbit imagines. And honestly it is my favorite sub lesson to read for kindergarten is they read the book and then there’s all these pages with different squares and rectangles on them and they just have to turn them into something else, right?

Kaitlyn: That’s amazing.

Jonathan: So it’s like-

Kaitlyn: Yeah.

Jonathan: You know and it’s sparking that creativity that hopefully then they’ll go see the potential of cardboard. We talked a little bit, both of us, doing this work at home with our own children. But what is your favorite way to use cardboard in your art room with your students?

Kaitlyn: I mean, I think for a lot of us, definitely cardboard looms. Anytime there’s testing booklets that get passed out, literally admin brings me this huge stack of perfect, amazing, beaming … Essentially I view it as a cardboard loom. So that’s a really obvious one, I think, most of us will use that for. But I’ve really taken to using cardboard a lot in my adapted art class.

Jonathan: Oh, okay.

Kaitlyn: Because sometimes I’m able to scrounge up some boxes but sometimes it’s hard to have enough for, not only a whole class but like a whole grade, unless you’re doing a completely choice based classroom where you don’t really always need to have it available. My school, we are not that way. But so I really like to use them for my smaller groups, like my adapted art class. So one of the ones I did recently is, I used to get this big tag board that would come in a huge paper box with the flats on it. It was essentially like a tri fold board and it was just the best thing to give them.

And we’ve turned them into so many different things, like gingerbread houses during the holidays, haunted houses. Houses earlier in the year, you could do inside and outside. So I’ll give them those and usually give them things like tempera paint or quick sticks or any kind of paint sticks like that, where I think like anything, that’s also on a larger scale kids like totally eat up. Where it’s like, instead of saying here’s this little piece of cardboard … Here’s this giant box, it’s all yours. I think they tend to get more excited about it.

Jonathan: And I think I’ve seen … Don’t you normally with your adaptive students, you draw the structure itself and then provide it to them to add color and fun to, right?

Kaitlyn: Yeah, yeah. I’ll give them a start just because there’s such a wide range of abilities and interests and so I’ll give them that start where I’m like, a couple, whether it’s the door or windows, whatever. And some of my kids just are like, “No, no, no, Mrs. Eddington.” They’ll grab my … And they just take off. And they’re so excited. Whereas like some of the other ones, they’ll see what I’ve already drawn and maybe they’ll color it in. Sometimes I try to make it interactive, where they can open it. Sometimes we’ll do the printing on it. So it’s more of like a sensory experience.

Definitely, it’s super important for me to my students to be doing their own work. So I do start it for them, but it’s more to like really hook them with engagement as opposed to … And I never want my students work to all look the same, especially in a class like that. I just want them to be … As long as they’re engaged, as long as they’re safe and having fun, let’s do it. You know? So, but I also do use cardboard a lot for armatures for paper mache and things like that. So, I mean, I’m sure every art teacher has some terribly scary cupboard that is just full of recycled materials. And it should be roped off, like, do not enter, things will fall. Like an avalanche will fall on you. But yeah, I mean, I’m always saving things for different structures and sculptures and things like that.

Jonathan: Well, you’ve identified two of these but there is, I mean, even though it’s plentiful, even though it’s great because you can just recycle what you don’t use. There are challenges to use in cardboard and one is what you shared about having enough for all of your students.

Kaitlyn: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yes.

Jonathan: The other one, like you just said, storing it. What I’ve come to do is actually store things in the cardboard I’m planning on using. So it’s like performing double duties sometimes. Sometimes storing cardboard inside cardboard. But are there any other challenges that you’ve met when you were working with cardboard with your students?

Kaitlyn: Yeah, definitely space. Especially if they start making a 3D, a paper mache animal. I’m like, “Oh this’ll be great.” And then I look at this giant polar bear. I’m like, “Where the heck am I going to store, even this bear now.” They end up lining the top my cabinets and yeah, it’s crazy, the space, for sure. But also sometimes materials. I mean, I think kids are super capable of glue and tape and stuff but what do you cut cardboard with? I mean, we’re obviously not going to give them, depending on the age, a box cutter or something like that. So sometimes I struggle with that.

Abby Schukei shared a couple years ago about this CANARY Cardboard Cutter. I don’t know if you’ve ever used those before. I mean, I saw it on Amazon. She shared it and that has been a game changer. Now, I haven’t-

Jonathan: Really?

Kaitlyn: Yes. I haven’t given them to any students other than fifth grade. And it’s usually been more small group situations, like if I have a small group of kids and we’re doing set designs for a musical or something like that. I trust them with that and I’ll show them. It does make me a little bit nervous but they’re great. Even if I just have one, it makes things super fast. So if they’re like, “Hey, can you really quick cut this window out.” It’s like a serrated … Yeah, you don’t really pull on it like you would a box cutter. It’s more of like a saw because it’s a serrated tool.

Jonathan: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Kaitlyn: And it just, oh my gosh. It places through like butter. It’s great. I actually bought some to keep here because we’re always like cardboard central here. So that has been a really, really great tool. But I think, I know they’re definitely are teachers who use this, maybe more at the middle school level. So that is one thing I do struggle with. So I try to give them things that are precut or different sizes or, I mean, they can cut through cardboard, just depends on the thickness and that kind of stuff.

Jonathan: I mean, raise your hand if you’ve ever had a kid break scissors while cutting cardboard because like-

Kaitlyn: Right, yeah.

Jonathan: And it’s scary when that happens and you’re like, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.”

Kaitlyn: Right, right.

Jonathan: But what was that tool called again? A CANARY-

Kaitlyn: Yeah, I think it’s called the CANARY Cardboard Cutter. It has a yellow handle.

Jonathan: Okay. All right, we’re all going to get it.

Kaitlyn: And I’m happy to share a link to you and you could share it with everybody. But it’s awesome. It is an amazing tool, yeah.

Jonathan: I do have these … I got them a couple year because of one of my colleagues shared it. Fiskars has these scissors that are really for cutting fabric but it’s the way that you cut with them, it’s got long handles. So it’s almost they look like little hedge clippers.

Kaitlyn: I was going to say like pruning shears for plants or something. Huh, wow.

Jonathan: Exactly. So I bought several of those and my students, whenever we’re cutting up cardboard into smaller pieces, they can go to town with it because it’s all about leverage.

Kaitlyn: Leverage, yeah.

Jonathan: And I think that’s the tricky thing about cardboard is, it’s good when you can be picky, right?

Kaitlyn: Yeah.

Jonathan: Because it comes with different thicknesses, different quality. Some of it feels dirty, right?

Kaitlyn: Right, yeah. You can do some cool … I actually am now thinking I’ve definitely had kids, like if it’s a thicker one, even peel back a layer, where you can see that beautiful ridges and texture and that’s even another way to make it even look more beautiful. You could print with it. So sometimes we’re like in the moment, those kind of things. I’m like, “Let’s just see happens if I pull this off. Oh look, it’s a lot thinner. We can cut through those lines.” So yeah, I’m all about, let’s just like, “This is a problem. Okay, what do we want to do? How should we solve it?” And so yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I love it. I’ll have to get those cutters now.

Jonathan: I know, right.

Kaitlyn: Yeah.

Jonathan: And I mean, you know you’re in an art teacher podcast when we’re getting hyped up about my having cardboard and peeling back layers of cardboard.

Kaitlyn: Yeah. I’m like, “You know what I’m talking about, right?”

Jonathan: Yeah. And we all do, and we all do.

Kaitlyn: Yeah. We all do. That’s so funny.

Jonathan: Do you have any exciting plans in the future for how you want to use cardboard next?

Kaitlyn: So actually, it’s so funny that you said this because just the last couple days I’ve been in PD with my department and one of the other teachers was like … I mean, were birds of a feather. We all know exactly. She sent out an email that was like, “Hey, we just got all these iPad boxes and inside were these cardboard packing. They essentially look like a really big, heavy duty cardboard egg carton, maybe. It’s like rigid and bumpy. And she sent us this picture and it was like towers-

Jonathan: Towers, yes.

Kaitlyn: Yeah, do you think? And we all were like me, mine. We’re all trying to clean them. So just yesterday, me and my teammate, we were wheeling out to our car, just probably 150 of these cardboard iPad whatevers and we were like-

Jonathan: What are you going to do?

Kaitlyn: Well, we were like, that’s when we were looking at them and we’re like, alligator. Oh my God. I could totally see alligator. So we’re going to try to figure out how to turn these into alligators for first grade. So, where will we store them? Don’t ask me that yet. I have no clue. So our imaginations were just firing of, okay, yeah. We can do this for the snout and the eyes and maybe they can be submerged in the water and the tail will come up over here. And we were just like … We were going to town. So we already knew, my district picks a theme every year. And so we’ve been focusing on rainforest and things like that.

And so we wanted to get a crocodile or alligator in there anyway and those cardboard pieces should … So, that’ll be our next thing that we’re working on. But I think for that project, because the grade is younger, I think I’m going to have to be doing some of that brainstorming of figuring it out. But also, you always got to give kids the benefit of the doubt because we could show them one way and then they could … I’m definitely going to give them scraps and maybe painted paper and all kinds of stuff and they just always blow you away. They always come up with things way better than what you imagine. So I’m excited, I’m excited to give them a jump off point and then see what they come up with.

Jonathan: And I love it, right? Because you had this creative collaborator with you, that’s like, “Oh, I know. Oh, let’s do this. Oh, what about …” And that’s what we all need. And the other thing that comes to mind is, it’s like, we also have to be intentional about our enthusiasm and when to calm it down, right?

Kaitlyn: Right.

Jonathan: You’re not going to want to do giant houses and alligators and paper mache and all at the same time. But by saying, “Hey, right now I’m going to focus on first grade, then maybe you can find a place to store it until you send those babies home and start the next giant thing, right?

Kaitlyn: Yeah. It’s really rare, I feel with cardboard, I wait for materials to come to me because I feel like it’s sometimes really hard to like, okay, you have this project today and then you’re sending out emails and you’re waiting for months and then sometimes my own enthusiasm dies down. I’m like, “We were going to do this thing but it took us so long to get these boxes, forget it.” But if something like this shows up, I’m like, “Yep, we got to go for it.” You know, because it is rare that you get this large amount for a whole group of kids. So yeah. I mean, it’s funny. I just got an email from my coworkers that was like, “I just left 25 shoe boxes outside of your room because I know you can come up with something.” And I was just like, my custodian’s going to kill me. But yes, I will. I will come up with something for the … Because you can’t let it go to waste. You know?

Jonathan: No, never.

Kaitlyn: Right.

Jonathan: That’s awesome. We could have continued that conversation for hours. But here are a few more practical tips and uses of my favorite supply. Need display pedestals for student sculptures? Well take tall cardboard boxes, paint them black and your set. They’re easy to move around and stash out of the way, when not in use. To add a little more weight, you can include some old dried up clay or even a brick in the bottom, inside the box to make it more sturdy. And one of my favorite things to do is cut up a ton and I mean a ton of small cardboard pieces, small rectangles and have them available for students to make elements of their work seem to pop up off of the two dimensional page.

So imagine a background of painted leaves and a few cut out leaves that seem to just hover above the surface. I have a box of these cardboard rectangles on my front counter that students can access when they need them. They glue two or three rectangles together, add them to the back of the paper shape they want to pop out and adhere it to the background. It’s a great, easy and super cost-effective way to explore the concept of emphasis. And be sure to check out my upcoming article for the Art of Education University’s Online Magazine. It is called, An Art Teachers Love Letter to Cardboard. In it, you will read about some of my favorite uses, projects and plans for cardboard in the art room. Thank you so much for joining me today for this episode of Everyday Art Room.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.