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When I taught kindergarten my favorite thing to do was to show up in the classroom with a stack of giant cardboard boxes and then build something awesome with them.

I started out my career as a teacher in a private school making $8 an hour so things like “supplies” and “furniture” were often hard to come by.

That’s not to say that the school didn’t provide the basics. We had pencils and construction paper, crayons and paints. There were containers full of Lego and other containers full of buttons.

But if you’ve ever flipped through a school catalog and seen everything from realistic-looking plastic eggplants to giant alphabet floor rugs, you know that “buttons” is sort of bottom of the barrel in terms of options.

And yet buttons are what we had.

Also, cardboard boxes.

I spent a lot of time dumpster diving, mostly behind furniture stores and appliance warehouses, in search of a great cardboard box. The holy grail of discoveries was always an empty refrigerator box.

No expensive catalog playhouse could compete with the amazing things we could do with a refrigerator box. But even a stove box, or a sofa box, or in a pinch, some chair boxes stuck together with duct tape would do.

One year I was particularly lucky and scored three refrigerator boxes. We built a castle to end all castles that year. It had two turrets and a grand hall and a moat and drawbridge. I think all 18 kids fit in there at once.

refrigerator box castle

But even when the boxes weren’t so grand we came up with cool things to build. We turned three smallish dryer boxes into houses for the three pigs. We glued grass and sticks all over them and slapped some red construction paper on the third for bricks.

We turned a sort of lopsided crummy dishwasher box into a boat. Once you painted it and stuck a chair inside to act as the captain’s chair, nobody noticed that it was mostly crushed on one end and that the bottom had a big hole. In fact, those things made for some pretty good stories.

One of my favorites was the rocket ship. We wanted it to be round, like a rocket, and since the box was quite square, it presented a bit of a conundrum.

cardboard box rocketSo we tried to pound out and flatten the box, stepping on the seams to little avail. Finally we took it outside and laid it on the grass, and a couple of kids got into it like it was a hamster wheel and started rolling it around the yard. It was their idea. I just went along for the fun.

I tell you what, I’ve never seen a box tamed quite as effectively as that. That square was as round as a barrel by the time those kids were done.

Gingerbread houses. Train cars. The Leaning Tower of Pisa. We built it all.

And igloos.

That project was particularly fun. We would start collecting empty cereal and Pop-Tart and waffle boxes at the beginning of the year. Then after the Christmas holidays, when everything was looking a bit depressing and un-festive after all the sparkle of the season, we’d crack out the boxes and build.

It always started with The Big Sort. Elbow-deep in boxes, the kids would figure out which boxes could go together to build an even layer of “ice cubes” and which would be good for the base and which would stack better at the top. Big Cheerio boxes went on the bottom. Little toaster strudel boxes filled in the dome.

After that, it was anyone’s guess how the project would turn out. Even though it always involved large quantities of duct tape, the result was, in large part, a function of how the kids wanted to build it and just how persistent they were. Sometimes it had a nice big “smoke hole” in the roof when nobody could quite get the boxes to stay taped together.

It’s worth mentioning that the most hyperactive, distractible, “when are we going to go outside?” boy could focus like a laser for hours when it came to smoothing duct tape over cereal box seams.

cereal box igloo

Some years we had a very colorful igloo. One year, the kids decided to glue a sheet of white paper over each box for a more realistic effect. And once, they wanted to paint it.

We learned a valuable lesson that year, namely, that paint does not adhere to cereal boxes but instead sheds into a billion flakes that will get on your clothes and stick to the bottom of your shoes and get tracked across the rug and through the school for months to come so that eventually the school director will start following you around with a broom.

I should mention that she was a saint. Even after we ruined rugs, clothes, walls, tables and myriad other very expensive things, she still let us build and paint and tape to our hearts’ content.

This is more than a pleasant memory, though. This is actually a reflection of something I feel very strongly about, and that’s this: education is broken.

I worked in three schools over twelve years and none of them had money. They received no public funding. There were no “angel investors”. There were only a handful of kids and their tuition, which went to paying for everything from the electric bill to the teachers to the erasers.

We gave no tests. We never, not once, sat down to a lesson about at-cat-bat-fat-sat-hat. Nobody colored in the lines because there were no lines.

And yet somehow those kids managed to learn. Kids who couldn’t recognize a single letter in their own names were sitting in igloos reading the backs of cereal boxes by January.

I once saw a photo of an igloo built by some other school and made out of those translucent gallon milk containers, all carefully glue-gunned together. After I was done being impressed by it, I decided I didn’t like it. It was too symmetrical. Too realistic. It had no stories to read on the back, no puzzles to complete. There was no question of which pieces to fit together because they were all exactly, precisely the same. Where was the thought process? And what kindergartner had ever used a glue gun?

That was a grown up project and it had nothing to do with education. Education is simpler. And dirtier. And there are fewer right answers and more problems to solve.

Do you know what we did with a box of odd buttons? We counted them. And hid them. And glued them. And stacked them and spun them and sorted them and added them and got all excited when we found a translucent pink one. We learned words like “translucent”.

It bugs me to hear people complain about how schools don’t have money.

It bugs me to think that we’re more interested in whether our kids can choose the correct bubble to shade in with a Number 2 pencil than whether they’ve got the brains to figure out that if you roll around in a box long enough, it will round out and you can turn it into a rocket.

We didn’t have games like Candyland but we had a bit of poster board and some magic markers. Someone drew a few squares and someone else made up a rule and then everyone spent the rest of the day or week or month arguing about it.

We learned things like figure it out and deal with it and well, do you have a better idea?

The learning happened in the mistakes. In the gaps between “let’s build a plane” and “what about the wings?” It happened because painting a dragon led to role playing with dragons which led to telling stories about dragons which led to spelling words related to dragons and writing those stories about dragons into notebooks. And not because of a spelling test or a worksheet or a state-mandated lesson plan.

These are some of the things that the kids who passed through my life did when they were just five years old:

Learned all 50 states and their capitals because he could.

US map

Drew a scale-model of the aircraft carrier Nimitz because he wanted to.

Watched a documentary about the Leaning Tower of Pisa and then walked around sharing little factoids for the rest of the year because it was fun.

Poured every liquid in her house into a different glass then dropped pine needles in each one to see if they would dissolve because she was curious.

Stood up on a stage and read every word of Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” because she was proud.

In a world where technology is changing our lives on a daily basis, where competition is tremendous and we pretend to value things like creativity, independence and responsibility, it amazes me how bent we are on shoving our kids into boxes by percentile.

In my classroom we used to play a game called “What is it?” where we’d pick some arbitrary item, like a paper plate, and then pass it around until everyone came up with something other than what the thing was. A paper plate might be a UFO or a hat, or, bent just right, a telescope.

As an employer and someone who runs a business today, I want to hand someone a paper plate and ask them what it is. The first person who tells me that it’s a toilet seat lid is the one who I want to hire.

And yet in school we give kids a workbook and we point to the picture and we admonish them to get the right answer.

I’m not reminiscing for “the good old days”. This is not me being a Luddite or pining for simpler times. The truth is that unless we can get kids to figure out how to build igloos instead of pointing to the word with the short-i sound then we’re doomed to mediocrity. We’ve relinquished our ability to think and to exercise our unique creativity.

I’ve run into kids who were once in my class who are now in college or even graduated college. They study theater or medicine or law or music. And the one thing they consistently tell me, 100% of the time, is that they remember how much fun they had creating and learning and exploring.

Nobody thanks me for teaching them to read. Or for preparing them to shade in bubbles. But they do remember that time we drew a life-sized shark and how we measured it down the hallway with a yardstick and a giant roll of paper and then used about a gallon of paint to complete it.

They remember the castles, and the time we wrapped the boys in tin foil so they could be knights and save their lovely princesses from the 20-foot dragon we’d painted, complete with glued-on buttons.

knights in tin foil

They always remember the igloo.

More supplies and better equipment won’t improve education. Cutting edge tech won’t. Longer days or shorter days or higher salaries or lower entry ages or smaller classes or bigger rooms or new computers or old-fashioned values won’t.

A box, a few buttons and a handful of pine needles with enough space to think? Now you’re onto something.