Cardboard and Marbles




Introduction: Cardboard and Marbles

About: The Lesley STEAM Learning Lab is a center designed to research new opportunities for learning through engagement and inquiry-based exploration. In addition to his work with Lesley, Dr. Goldowsky is principal…

In the Cardboard and Marbles workshop, participants use readily available household materials to design, build and play games. The workshop encourages creativity, engagement, and collaboration. Each session is designed around an activity or challenge as well as time for participants to work on individual or small group projects. Over the course of the workshop, participants are introduced to some basic cardboard engineering ideas, simple machines, and the design/engineering process.

Activities are designed to be supported by an educator, and can work in-person or remotely, in out-of-school-time or more traditional settings. Most materials are readily available or can be supplied to participants through a teaching kit.


  • Recycled corrugated cardboard, and assorted other recycled materials as available
  • Cardboard saw/cutter (alternatively, many pumpkin carving knives work well)
  • Tape
  • Sharp, pointed scissors
  • A sheet of printer paper
  • Marbles, ping pong balls, and/or other small balls (the choice will depend on the projects and what is available.) If you are putting together a kit or maker space, consider including: two sizes of marbles, and ping-pong balls.
  • Other household materials as available. If you are putting together a kit or maker space, consider including: colorful paper, tape, paper fasteners, rubber bands, construction paper, large paper clips, glue stick, hot glue, electric cardboard cutter, paper punch.

Be Safe: You will need to judge the safety of different tools and materials for your group’s age and abilities. The activities assume that participants will be able to safely cut corrugated cardboard. If this poses an issue for your group, you could substitute thin cardboard (like cereal boxes) that can be cut with scissors, or you can help cut the cardboard.

Step 1: Introducing the Cardboard and Marbles Workshop

Start by introducing the group goal for the Cardboard and Marbles Workshop: Building a set of playable games out of cardboard and marbles -- a mini-arcade. You can look forward to playing the finished games together, showing them to others at an open house, or -- if you are working remotely -- sharing them virtually at the end of the workshop.

Some educators have used the “Caine's Arcade” video (see Resources) as a way of introducing the idea of a cardboard arcade. Group goals and structured challenges along the way provide support for participants with a wide range of experience. In engineering, limits or parameters can result in more creative problem solving and can challenge students to pursue unfamiliar directions. The ideal balance of structure will vary for different participants and groups.

Step 2: Brainstorm & Initial Plans

Brainstorm: Start by asking participants to describe any experiences they have had playing arcade games or other games with moving parts. Has anyone been to an arcade or game room? After this initial 1-3 minute invitation, transition to brainstorming a list of games that could be built out of cardboard and marbles, or cardboard and ping-pong balls.

While you do not want to lead a structured lecture about specific designs, it may help to have a few images ready to show if the brainstorm needs encouragement. Also, familiarize yourself in advance with the range of possibilities so that you can suggest possible directions to open up the conversation (the intent is certainly not to have everyone build copies of these ideas, the list is just to suggest possibilities). Here are some possible directions for games:

And together you can invent more!

Plan: Have participants think about an idea they would like to build and draw an initial sketch. You can use the project sheet (see downloadable: Our Design Process PDF), or just keep the sketches and add them to the Our Design Process sheet later. The sheet is designed so participants can document their evolving ideas, and to provide an entry point for discussing the design process (see Resources).

Participants’ ideas may change quite a bit, especially at the beginning, so if you are using the sheet, participants may need to start a new sheet if they switch project ideas. In a future session, when the projects start to be at a playable stage, have students play-test their creations and summarize the results on these sheets (see Step 7 ).

Be Safe: Before you have students cutting cardboard, go over the safe use of the tools they will be using. You will need to judge the safety of different tools and materials for your group’s age and abilities.

Students should now start their projects. As you plan future sessions, the ideas below suggest structured challenges or activities for the beginning of each session. Ideally, each session should also have time for students to work on their game projects.

Step 3: Cardboard Dissection and Challenge

This is a good challenge early in the workshop.

To set up before this activity, take a small piece of corrugated cardboard (3x4” or so), one per participant, and soak it in a container of water for about 10 minutes, or long enough for it to be easily separated into layers. Explain that, since we are going to be working with cardboard, it is a good idea to spend some time investigating it -- it always helps to know about the materials you are building with. Have students, “dissect” the cardboard, and see what they can learn about it. One of the things you can see is that cardboard is essentially made up of pieces of thick paper.

How can something made from paper be strong enough to use in boxes or other constructions?

Challenge participants to use a single sheet of paper to make a shape, or structure, that will hold the weight of a book. It should keep the book at least 2” off the top of a table. Each student or team is limited to one sheet of paper and a 6” length of tape.

Can you add more books? Compare the designs participants developed.

Cardboard is strong enough to use in all sorts of unexpected ways. Search for Cardboard Furniture on Instructables for examples of how strong cardboard constructions can be! Or have some fun and ask participants to name some things that they would not expect to be made of cardboard (say, cardboard benches, cardboard boats, or cardboard cars). Then do a quick web search for images -- more likely than not someone has built one out of cardboard!

Step 4: Joining Challenge

Joining two pieces of materials together is a common challenge in building things. If you are building a table you need to attach legs to the tabletop. If you are building a box you need to attach the sides to the bottom. In fact, carpenters used to be called “joiners” and the title is still used by some woodworkers.

How many participants encountered a challenge in joining two pieces of cardboard while building their project?

Have participants do a quick scavenger hunt around their house, or room, looking for examples of how two pieces of material are joined together: in furniture, objects, or even the building itself. Share what you found. Some common approaches you may find include:

  • Fasteners - Glue, nails, screws, rivets, or other things may be used to fasten the material together. However, as described below, this is usually not the whole story.
  • Joints - often the way pieces of wood (or other materials) are cut or shaped helps make the joint stronger. It may still have screws or other fasteners, but the joint also takes advantage of the strength of the wood. For example, look at how the sides of drawers or chair legs connect. Some traditional woodworking techniques use joints that do not need any screws or other fasteners to keep them together -- the pieces essentially lock together. For example, you may find examples of “dovetail joints” in wood furniture.
  • Braces - Joining two thin edges can make for wobbly construction. Look at how chairs and tables are built. In addition to the legs and top, there is often another piece of wood or metal that adds strength. This could be a “corner brace” -- a piece of metal bent at a right angle -- or a triangular brace or “gusset” that adds even more strength.

Give participants a challenge: give each participant two index card-sized pieces of cardboard, and challenge them to join them at right angles. Try to make a joint that does not wiggle too much.

  • Are the two pieces securely joined or wiggly?
  • How strong is the joint? What techniques did you use?
  • Can you make it stronger?

See the Resources section for examples of various ways to join pieces of cardboard together.

Step 5: Cardboard Engineering Challenge

You can get a lot of ideas by looking at cardboard packaging. There are some very clever designs. By using only cardboard -- no staples or other materials -- designers can make the packaging more fully recyclable. Try to collect some interesting examples.

Here are some challenges to try with just cardboard -- no tape, or other fasteners this time:

  • Try to join two pieces of cardboard together. Look at slots, tabs, and other cardboard designs.
  • Make a brick shape that will not squish easily.
  • Make a cardboard platform you can stand on.
  • Make a box (with a lid for an extra challenge).

Step 6: Make It Move Challenge

Think about all the moving parts that would be useful in the games you are planning. Do they fall into the categories below? Feel free to add more categories. You can also do a scavenger hunt: try to find examples of moving mechanisms from around your house or room.

Pick one of these mechanisms and make a cardboard version of it -- for this challenge, it is helpful to use tape and other materials.

    Hinges -- look at doors, box lids, or books. A hinge is one sort of flexible connection between two pieces of material. You can also find other types of joints, such as ball joints, that allow different sorts of movement.

    Tape can be used to make good hinges between pieces of cardboard, or you can cut through one face layer of the cardboard, letting the other layers act as a hinge.

      Sliders -- look for drawers, windows, or sliding box lids. A game might use a slider to keep track of the score, to push a ball, or make a window that opens.

      Sliders can have one piece of cardboard that slides and other pieces that form a channel for it to slide in. You can also make a slot in a piece of cardboard and use a paper fastener to attach a second piece of cardboard that slides along the slot.

        Axle or pivot -- An axle or pivot lets something turn: a wheel, or a spinner, or a pinball flipper. The axle might be attached to a wheel (so turning the axle turns the wheel), or the wheel might turn freely.

        Paper fasteners make good axles since you can easily poke them through a cardboard wheel, then through a cardboard base.

        If students are studying “simple machines” (axles, levers, inclined planes, pulleys, wedges, screws) you can also draw connections between the games and the simple machines (see Resources section). In your games, you are very likely to find examples of inclined planes, axles, and levers (and possibly other simple machines as well).

        Step 7: Playtest

        After participants have made a working version of their game (not finished, just workable), they should playtest their game with several other people. Ideally, participants can playtest their games with each other. If you're working remotely, participants can have a sibling or parent try it out.

        Use the playtest to get ideas for improving the design. For example, participants may find it is too hard for a player to reach the goal in a maze game, and they will want to make it easier. Or perhaps they find they need to increase the challenge. Maybe they find a part that needs to be made stronger, or easier to move.

        When participants have had a chance to playtest their creation, have them document what they found out on the Our Design Process sheet and think about how to improve their design. Don’t wait too long to do the play tests -- you want to leave plenty of time for revisions. Ideally, the projects should evolve through a couple of rounds of playtesting and improvements.

        The idea of designing, testing, and revising your design (based on the testing) is critical to the design/engineering process (see Resources). This is also a good point in the workshop at which to discuss the design/engineering process explicitly.

        Step 8: Final Presentation

        At the end of the workshop, hold your in-person or virtual showcase where students can let others try their game. Display the Design Process Sheet along with participants' creations, and have participants talk about their process and how they improved their game along the way.

        You can also share your experiences and creations in the Comments section at the end of this Instructable!

        Step 9: Resources

        Caine’s Arcade -- an inspirational film (that went viral) about a cardboard arcade made by a child in East Los Angeles:

        Ways of joining cardboard:

        Design/Engineering Process (there are many other variations on the web, some more complex than others):

        Simple machines:

        This work is made possible by support from STAR, a Biogen Foundation Initiative. The team at Lesley supporting this initiative includes faculty and staff in the Lesley STEAM Learning Lab, Science in Education, the Center for Mathematics Achievement, and other related Lesley University departments and programs.

        1 Person Made This Project!


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