What Would School Look Like if Every Student Built Caine's Arcade?

GOOD's Pathfinder Fellows headed to Melrose Elementary School to volunteer in classrooms helping kids build arcade games designed out of cardboard.

When we were in school, we sat at desks with a textbook, paper, and a pencil, and our teachers lectured. You probably had that experience too, but for students attending a school participating in the Imagination Foundation's Global Cardboard Challenge, learning is happening with popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, and of course cardboard.

This past Tuesday we headed over to Melrose Elementary School in Los Angeles to volunteer in classrooms helping students build arcade games they designed out of cardboard and recycled materials.

Melrose is a very small school—there are only around 350 students—but the staff and student body are very racially and culturally diverse.

We met with two different teachers, Mr. Willis who teaches kindergarten, and Ms. Pleasants who teaches fifth graders. Their students were working together because the school partners the older and younger kids in a "kinder-buddy" program. This helps introduce the fifth graders to the idea of mentoring. We could not imagine this kind of partnership happening when we were in school without a little bit of chaos, but we found the level of the Melrose students' maturity to be extremely high.

When we first walked into Mr. Willis' room, we saw cardboard all over the tables and floors. The students had already picked up supplies they needed to complete their cardboard challenge from the Melrose auditorium. Tables were set up on the auditorium's floor with boxes filled with marbles, pipe cleaners, colored duct tape, used CDs, and dozens of other materials that parents, teachers, and community members had donated. The auditorium's stage was also full of cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes. It was so amazing to see kids have fun "shopping" for their supplies. Talk about a kid in a candy store—they all went nuts!

Seeing the kids so enthusiastic about bringing their cardboard arcade games to life made us want to jump right in and engage with them as volunteers.

When we first went to help Jake, a 10-year-old fifth grader, and Nicholas, his five-year-old kinder-buddy, we asked them what they were working on and they said "Caine’s Arcade Challenge." We then asked them about this mysterious challenge and they told us about this little kid name Caine who made an arcade out of boxes. "Our school wanted to give kids like us a chance to build our own arcade," said Jake.

Toussaint, a nine-year-old fifth grader, was working with his five-year-old kinder-buddy, Leo. They were building a skee ball game that they had designed together. Building the game "teaches kids to try to use what you have," said Toussaint. The kids also learned a powerful design and creativity lesson. "It doesn't have to be complicated," Toussaint added.

There are academic benefits to participating in the Global Cardboard Challenge, too. Elliot, a 10-year-old fifth grader, and his team built a Ball Drop game. Elliot says constructing arcade games "teaches kids about engineering other than the basics like math and all that other stuff."

So does building arcade cardboard games take away from time behind the desk? "Absolutely, it takes time away from language arts, math, and science," says Mr. Willis. "But we get just as much benefit from learning from this kind of activity as we do from a structured activity in class." Mr. Willis also thinks students "benefit more" from activities like the cardboard challenge.

Ola May, a Melrose parent, saw the Caine's Arcade film two years ago and was so inspired that she took her son Zyg to the actual arcade located in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood. "I wanted every child at the school to have the same opportunity to have a chance to build their own work," says May. So, she organized Melrose's participation in this year's cardboard challenge.

Volunteering with the students made us wonder, what would our education have looked like if we'd participated in something like this cardboard challenge? What if we'd been able to have that much fun building games, mentoring younger students, and working together as a team to accomplish a mission? And, one of the things youth in our generation frequently hear is that the jobs of the future will require science, technology, engineering, and math skills. If we don't have those skills, we won't be able to land the job that we want, just because of the simple fact that we really never learned STEM when we were in school.

For example, at Benjamin Franklin High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District during the 2011-2012 school year only 17 percent of students scored at the proficient or advanced level in math. Maybe if Franklin's kids had been invited to do something like the cardboard challenge, a greater number of students would have reached proficiency.

No, textbooks, desks, and lectures aren't bad, but the lesson of the Global Cardboard Challenge is that if we really want kids to learn and achieve, they need the opportunity to do so much more.

Want to mentor a student from a low income community? Click here to say you'll do it.

Desiray Figueroa and Airren Kirk are two members of the Pathfinder Fellowship, a joint effort of GOOD/Corps and The California Endowment. They're working as interns with GOOD's community team.

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