Cardboard: Igniting imagination for all ages

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A young visitor assembles a structure out of cardboard bricks at the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

Here at Exploratek, we’ve been praising cardboard as the best material ever for a long time, and we’re far from the only ones! As mentioned in our previous article, cardboard — often found in the form of boxes — is versatile, lightweight, and cheap (often completely free!). These qualities are high on our list of why we love it so much, but the most important (and often forgotten) reason is that cardboard ignites imagination. 

A young man and a young woman wearing red Ingenium shirts are playing a cardboard game of foosball with one of them scoring. Yellow and blue clothespins were used to hold the cardboard players up and a pink ball was used as the foosball.
Ingenium guides Joshua Capina and Veronique Kenny go back and forth in an all-cardboard foosball game. The day was filled with laughter and joy, with the imagination of many expanding ‘outside of the box.’ Photo credit: Catherine Emond

Have you ever heard of a child setting aside a brand-new toy to play with the box it came in instead? 

Cardboard is extraordinary because everyone can find a way to explore with it. Give it to children, who imagine it as a spaceship, a cave, or a turtle shell. Older children will use it as the perfect craft material for their unbridled imagination. Teenagers and adults will start using it in more matter-of-fact ways, such as a mat to protect surfaces, a construction material to create low-fidelity prototypes, or as art supply in its own right. But it’s not rare to see adults find a piece of their childhood when confronted with a huge box! Cardboard isn’t intimidating, because it’s been with us our entire life. 

A woman in a bright red Ingenium shirt sits on the floor next to a cardboard ball drop game. Her aim is to put a green ball through one of three holes at the top of the cardboard structure so the ball can travel through a series of mini poles to land in one of three blue cups at the bottom.

Guide Chelsey Barrett shows off one of the many different cardboard structures on display. 

In 2007, nine-year-old Caine Monroy started — without realizing it — a worldwide revolution, bringing forward cardboard as a distinguished material worthy of attention. Using his creativity and some cardboard, Caine created a fully-equipped game room, worthy of the best arcade, in his dad’s auto parts store. Nirvan Mullick, a filmmaker who came across Caine’s arcade while waiting for a car piece, bought a fun pass for one dollar and started playing the games Caine had built. He admired Caine’s creativity and was inspired to create a short film on the topic to share his joy for the games. Through his social media networks, Mullick invited people to join him to surprise the young maker, and play in the arcade. The invitation went viral.

00:11] CAINE: "My name's Caine and I'm nine years old.

[00:13] CAINE: My arcade is called Caine's Arcade. It's open on weekends only, and it's really cheap."

[00:21] 'GEORGE: "Caine does not pass by an arcade without stopping in. He loves tickets, playing games, he loves prizes... So it was only natural for him to build his own arcade.

[00:32] '''GEORGE: He loves to see how things are built. He takes all his toys apart to see how they work. He can't put them back together, but he takes them apart.

[00:40] 'GEORGE:' Caine spent summer vacation coming to work with me. We sell auto parts in East L.A.

'[00:48] 'CAINE: My dad has a lot of boxes back there. We ship parts out. So I cut them up, and I make my arcade games out of it.

'[00:55] 'CAINE: This is my first game that I made. The basketball hoop I got at Shakey's pizza, and it's really cool.

'[01:02] 'GEORGE: He taped it onto a box, and he was offering people chances to play for like a nickel. He started from that little game and little by little they started getting fancier and fancier, and eventually he took over the whole store.

'[01:15] 'NIRVAN: I met Caine randomly. I had to get a door handle for my '96 Corolla...

(Nirvan, Caine's First Customer)

'[01:22] 'NIRVAN: I pulled into this used auto parts store and I just came across this elaborate cardboard arcade.

'[01:29] 'NIRVAN: I asked him how much it was to play, and he was like, for one dollar, you get four turns, but for two dollars, you get a Fun Pass. And I was like, well, how many turns do you get with a Fun Pass? You get five hundred turns for a Fun Pass. I got a Fun Pass."

'[01:43] 'CAINE: "I made this Fun Pass that expires in one month and you get five hundred plays on any of these games, which is a great deal. Then I started making my office. It has like a speaker, on the other side so I can talk through. I got tokens, my business cards, fun passes, and prizes. The first prizes I used my old toys like the cars were my own toys. Vrooom.

'[02:08] 'CAINE: I used to like Hot Wheels, when I was little.

'[02:10] 'GEORGE: "I work from the back office and it kept him out of my hair all summer. He would be working on the arcade, and I'd work on eBay."

'[02:19] 'CAINE: "My next game I built was a soccer game. First of all, it didn't have no goalies. People said it was too easy, so I bought army goalies, those are my blockers. I told em, is it easy now? It's pretty hard, so you get two tickets if you make it in here. I'll give it a four star, hard game, challenging game. Four star."

'[02:44] 'GEORGE: "One day, Caine tells me, dad, I want to buy a claw machine. I said, why don't you just build it? So he got a S-hook, put a piece of yarn on it, and then put a little track on top of the box, and I said, what the heck? He figured out how to make a claw machine with a string and a hook."

'[03:04] 'CAINE: And here's some sunglasses. These are the glasses I like the most. Star sunglasses.

'[03:10] 'GEORGE: "He'd buy calculators to put on every arcade game, and I go, what's that for?"

'[03:15] 'CAINE: "The calculators right here are for security to see if it's a real fun pass or not. On the back of the fun pass has a security number, so when you go here, you have to turn it on, you put the pin number in it and you push the check mark button, and the big number comes out. That's how you know it's a real fun pass."

'[03:39] 'GEORGE: "My dad started the business in 1955. We have used auto parts. Most of our business has gone online because we really don't get the walk-up traffic that we used to, so Caine's chances of getting one customer is pretty hard. Caine's always waiting in front, sitting on his little chair, and trying to convince people to play, but not too much luck."

'[04:03] 'CAINE: "Caine's Arcade, grand opening."

'[04:06] 'GEORGE: "But he never gets discouraged. He's always sweeping up and dusting off the games, waiting for customers.

'[04:14] 'GEORGE: He only wears his shirt on Saturdays and Sundays when he comes to open up his arcade, and he's really proud of his shirt because he thought it up and he designed it.

'[04:24] 'GEORGE: Well when Caine got back to school from vacation, he started telling everybody that he had an arcade, and nobody believed him. So, he won't wear his shirt to school, because he's afraid kids might tease him about it. You know, he told them, hey I've got my own arcade and they go, yeah, yeah sure. Well, one day, my secretary comes running into the office, George, you'll never believe it. Somebody's playing Caine's arcade. And I went, no way! So I was looking through the security camera, watching him."

'[05:02] 'NIRVAN: "And I'm playing miniature soccer, miniature basketball. And then, when you score a point, he would crawl into the box and he pulls out these little tickets out of the side of the cardboard."

'[05:13] 'CAINE: "Like real arcade games, tickets come from the bottom."

'[05:17] 'NIRVAN: "And I was like, this kid's a genius."

'[05:22] 'GEORGE: "Nirvan came back one day, when Caine wasn't here and he told me, you mind if I make a short film about Caine's arcade? And I said, well actually, it's kind of like a little joke around here, because you're his only customer."

'[05:36] 'NIRVAN: "I was blown away. Caine's only sold one fun pass? Like, the fun pass is an awesome deal."

'[05:41] 'GEORGE: "So Nirvan said, what if I can get him a couple of customers? And I said, that would make his day. If you could get him one customer, he'll be happy."

'[05:49] 'NIRVAN: "And at that point, we hatched a plan to invite everybody in L.A. to come play Caine's arcade. The idea was to do a surprise flash mob at Caine's arcade on Sunday afternoon."

'[05:59] 'GEORGE: "And I'm thinking, who's gonna come down to a junk yard Sunday afternoon, east L.A.? Who's really gonna show up?"

'[06:09] 'NIRVAN: "Then I made a little Facebook event, which a friend posted on Hidden L.A., which has over two hundred and thirty thousand fans. And all of a sudden, it started going viral."

'[06:16] 'GEORGE: "Nirvan put it over the internet, and all of a sudden, within an hour, we had NBC News here."

'[06:21] 'NIRVAN: "Then it hit the front page of Reddit, which is like being on the front page of the internet."

'[06:26] 'GEORGE: "I started reading the comments. I wish I could be there, I live in New York. I wish I could be there, I live in Europe. And I'm going, wow. It was getting big. The plan is I'm going to take Caine to Shaky's Pizza, we're gonna play some arcade games, we're gonna eat lunch, while Nirvan sets up a big surprise party. Caine has no idea what we're doing, and when we get back, he'll have the biggest surprise of his life."

'[06:53] 'NIRVAN: "And the idea is just to get as many people as we can to come out to Caine's arcade and just make his day."

'[07:08] 'GEORGE: "Caine's dying to have one customer show up to his arcade, so Caine is going to be the most surprised little boy in the whole wide world."

'[07:15] 'NIRVAN: "Hey, we're ready. In about a minute, he's going to arrive here. "

'[07:25] 'GEORGE: "Hey Caine, can we go home early today? We had no customers today."

'[07:29] 'CAINE: "No."

'[07:31] 'GEORGE: "No? C'mon, dad's tired."

'[07:33] 'GEORGE: "No can do."

'[07:34] 'GEORGE: "No can do?"

'[07:40] 'GEORGE: We're back Caine....


[07:49] CAINE Smiles :) - Giggles... SMILES! :D

'[07:50] 'GEORGE: Wow! What's going on over here, huh? Looks like we finally got some customers here."

'[08:01] 'NIRVAN: "Hi Caine."

[08:15] Crowd *chanting*: "We came to play."

'[08:23] 'NIRVAN: "Alright, everybody, this is Caine."

[08:24] Crowd: "Hi, Caine!"

'[08:26] 'NIRVAN: "Caine, this is everybody. All these people came here to play your arcade. Did you know they were coming?"

'[08:33] 'CAINE: "No."

'[08:34] 'NIRVAN: "Are you ready to run your arcade?"

'[08:36] 'CAINE: "Yeah."

'[08:37] 'NIRVAN: "Alright, what did you guys come here to do?"

[08:39] Crowd: "We came to play!"

'[08:41] 'NIRVAN: "Go ahead, welcome to Caine's arcade, man."

[00:00] Singing:

[08:43] Well, the C could be for cardboard,

[08:46] and the A could be for arcade,

[08:48] but the A could also be for auto parts,

[08:49] cause his pop's shop's where it's made.

[08:52] And the I's gotta be for imagination,

[08:54] of which the kid's got a lot.

[08:56] And the N oughta be for noggin,

[08:58] where the idea first got thought.

[09:00] But then the E

[09:02] Crowd: oh yes the E!

[09:03] oh yes the E,

[09:02] Crowd: oh yes the E!

[09:05] well, the E's gotta be for everybody,

[09:08] Crowd: that's you and me!

[09:10] cause everybody is who's invited to come on down and play.

[09:13] If you've got the pluck to try your luck, come on down to Caine's arcade.

[09:19] Oh, Cain's arcade,

[09:20] oh Caine's arcade!

[09:21] Oh, Cain's arcade,

[09:22] oh Caine's arcade!

[09:23] it's the best cardboard arcade ever been made!

[09:26] EVER MADE!

[09:27] Grab yourself a fun pass,

[09:29] and y'all come on down to play.

[09:32] If you've got the pluck to try your luck,

[09:34] get on down to Caine's arcade!* [09:45] (Cheers)

[09:48] Hi Five!

[09:49] Credits

'[10:07] 'CAINE: "First of all, I want to know how you got all those people. Are those your friends?

'[10:14] 'CAINE: When I came outside, I was like, is this real life or I was just dreaming?

'[10:24] 'CAINE: So I came out... and they were like, real people... and they were really playing the games.

'[10:36] 'CAINE: Then I was coming by, and I heard, and I saw a lot of people and I thought, hmm, I don't know, probably like a little parade around here somewhere.

'[10:42] 'CAINE: But then I saw they were like that. So I thought they were there for me, and they were!

'[10:51] 'CAINE: And I was proud.

[10:53] Credits: "Help Donate to Caine's Scholarship Fund"

Today, nearly two million people have participated in the Global Cardboard Challenge inspired directly by Caine’s arcade. It also inspired engineering challenges in primary and high schools, such as the Cardboard Boat Race hosted by Skills Ontario (see video below), and a cardboard chair challenge. Universities also get in on the fun, participating in events such as the cardboard bridge-making challenge hosted by Montreal’s Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridges Incorporated.

Watch a video of Rick Mercer at a competition with students:

Cardboard boat races and video challenges

The whistle blows and they’re off: cardboard boats of varying descriptions and sizes gliding to the other side of the pool, their builders madly paddling for all they’re worth. For those with good designs and a bit of luck, the cardboard vessels not only make it across the length of the pool, they also hold the weight of team members as they pile in, one by one.

For over 20 years, Skills Ontario has been hosting Cardboard Boat Races across Ontario, testing the student’s ability to build a floating structure that will outperform all others in speed and weight challenges.

Both elementary and secondary schools participate - on separate days. Teams of four are provided all the necessary materials to build a boat in just two hours. Students must bring their problem-solving, teamwork and design skills as they create a seaworthy structure out of two sheets of 4' by 8' corrugated cardboard and some duct tape.

Video Challenges
Meanwhile, teams of two record their boat building peer’s progress from the construction stage to the races in the pool, as they work to capture the best video of the action. The student videographers then edit and produce a promotional video at their schools. Once submitted, each production is judged, the winners are selected and teams are provided with a scoring breakdown.

Caine’s enjoyment for building games out of cardboard was contagious. It showed kids and adults alike how easy it is to have fun. It reminded us to go back to basics, that making isn’t about high tech, but about creativity, resourcefulness and most of all, joy! 

Profile picture for user Catherine Émond
Catherine Émond

Catherine found her passion for educating in museums settings. She works at the Canada Science and Technology Museum as part of the Visitor Experience team. She enjoys testing and creating ingenious activities for Exploratek, the museum’s maker studio, where she invites people to try a variety of tinkering challenges. She’s inspired by visitors’ creations and loves coming up with new Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) projects to try out.