Cardboard Cities

Ever wonder what would happen if you left lots of children in a room with lots of cardboard boxes?

well, it would look something like this….

Cardboard Cities was an interactive exhibition at the 2012 Belfast Children’s Festival. The exhibition let children play, build and create on a giant scale.

Rather than a traditional adult led workshop, Cardboard Cities was more like a blank canvas with adult support, children took their shoes of, put them in a shoe box, walked in and started making. There was a table with adult helpers, but rather than directing play the adults were there to help out when needed, be it to cut a giant piece of card (only grown ups are allowed scissors!), or to help them stick something really high.

It’s an unusual situation for children, seldom are they are allowed to draw on the walls and on the floor. At Cardboard Cities they could make whatever they like, they could be messy or tidy,  make big or small, create quietly in the corner, or run around and play hide and seek. The format worked well because it accommodates the needs, and play preferences of different children.

Whilst the Cardboard Cities format is all about letting children take the lead, its success is down to some very clever participatory design scaffolding (a concept that Nina Simon has talked frequently about in her blog, and book). Children like a bit of guidance, a bit of structure in their daily routine but also when it comes to play and creativity, that is why games have rules and teachers tell children from a very young age what they will be doing during each school day. The scaffolding in this instance is a cardboard road that leads from the entrance into the exhibition, and a couple of cleverly constructed cardboard buildings for inspiration. But even the buildings created by the adults are up for destruction, or additions – the installation belongs to the children, so no one is to precious about what the exhibition ‘should’ look like.

What I really loved is the element of trust, children are trusted to go and create, the process of making isn’t micro managed, the safe nature of a confined room lets parents and teachers chill out, sit down in a fort, or a castle and help their children out when needed. The result is funny graffiti, castles and forts, sky-scrappers, rockets and traffic cones.

What can we learn from this project?

  1. Harness children’s ability to think and make big (don’t make them colour in boring A4 colouring sheets when you could have them drawing on the walls)
  2. You don’t need lots of resources to create exciting and engaging opportunities for visitors young and old to participate and create. What you do need is a little bit of imagination, and a trust in your visitors ability to create.
  3. Providing a little bit of structure or ‘scaffolding’ can help draw out children’s creativity. Give them guidance, rather than telling them what to do.
  4. Blank rooms and empty spaces provide an excellent canvas!

As one child said to me ‘This is awesome, we’re never allow to draw big’

Cardboard Cities was created by artists Caragh O’Donnell and Ryan O’Reilly. The event revisits an exhibition which was created for the 2010 Belfast Children’s Festival by Caragh O’Donnell with Sinead Breathnach Cashell.


This post was inspired by  This is what happens when you give thousands of stickers to thousands of kids an article about Yoyoi Kusama’s ‘The Obliteration Room’ in the Queensland Art gallery, part of the  Look Now, See Forever exhibition.

All images taken from original article, click image to visit source

2 thoughts on “Cardboard Cities

  1. plexity says:

    I like your use of the Brunerist term scaffolding. Sounds like you’re striking the right balance.

    The term ‘ cardboard cities’ was first used, AFAIK, by a good friend of mine, Mick Conway, a playworker in London. He and his crew at Hackney Play Association used to do ‘cardboard cities’ regularly on playgrounds and in playcentres all over London. Other playworkers did it as well, often describing it as ‘arts and crafts’ which made it sound like a twee thing done by 4 nice little girls, involving pipe cleaners. I did a similar thing, when i worked in the North of England as a playworker (I founded a children’s arts centre) and later as a trainer of playworkers, only I was calling it ‘Big Arts’ as a reaction to that ‘arts and crafts’ tweeness, when I introduced it to playworkers. Making massive things out of huge cardboard is some of the best fun ever and I wanted everybody to have a go.

    You can contact Mick here, at the English national play organisation, where he is an important person.

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