Friday, March 29, 2013

Shoe Box Cities: An Adventure in STEAM Crafting

Can you spot the Arch?
I'm always looking for ways in which to engage kids with various learning modalities in my school-age programs. We all know the kids who are all over the Lego Club but would never attend a Valentine craft program; and, on the flip side, there are the kids who get excited about anything involving paint, glitter, and/or feathers but who shy away from anything with "science" in the description. I like to brainstorm ways to engage all types of kids with all types of interests all at once, to incorporate elements of crafty with engineering/problem-solving. I think I found a way.

Shoe Box Cities was a program I offered for the school-age crowd on an evening during our local spring break. The premise: come to the library to think about what goes into planning a city or town, then make one to take home.

I also set out Smarties.
Supplies were simple and free: staff members donated the lids of old shoe boxes, and I was given the go-ahead by our local hardware store to nab stacks of paint samples. The only additional building tools were scissors, tape, and markers.

I opened the program by asking the children what they like about the place they live--in our neck of the woods, that can include St. Louis. From there, we made a list of all the things we would include in a city if we were in charge of planning it. They covered transportation, sporting arenas, stores, restaurants, the library... I was very impressed at the depth of thought these kids gave to what they would want in a city.

Then, for the majority of the program, we built. We had a smaller group--14 people total--and we were all seated in a large square. I joined in the building, but every five minutes or so I would circulate to see the cities-in-progress, asking questions and requisitioning specific colors of paint samples as needed. I loved seeing how willing the kids were to help one another, too; when one figured out a way to make a miniature baseball field, he shared the knowledge with other eager sports fans. We also spent our work time talking about the books we'd been reading; I always love these informal book conversations as a means of quietly championing the joys of reading.

By the time the program ended, we had a myriad of interesting, intricate cities. Several children made their dream cities; one made a replica of the street with her school and the nearby grocery store; and one decided to think outside the box and make a shoe box house, complete with bathroom and attached garage.

What I think works about programs like this: there are no limits, but there is structure. The open-ended, creative possibility appeals to the artsy crafters, and the "how would you accomplish this task?" aspect appeals to the kids who identify themselves as builders and science folks. Everyone enjoys the program content, and, best of all, everyone leaves with a feeling of personal accomplishment. That's a big success, if you ask me.


  1. There is it...the perfect unprogram!!!! I love the way this incorporated so many elements of kid-directed making, building and solving and the seamless emphasis on STEAm. Oh, well done, you!

  2. I'm doing this program this Thursday and am super excited! Thanks for the great idea!

  3. This is so wonderful! What age range do you think this program is best for? I am thinking about doing it with the K-2 Curious Kids program I run. I ran a Cardboard Box Challenge and the kids got SO creative with it and this kind of reminds me of like a scaled down version of that! I love the open-ended nature of this program.

    1. I offered this program for the K-5 grade range, but a K-2 focus would definitely work.


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