Creative Construction Explorations
Developed in partnership with Artencurs.
Join us in exploring creative construction! On this page, we’re collecting a set of starting points, choose-your-own-adventure pathways, and artistic inspirations to launch your own playful exploration of structures and sculptures. What are you trying? Share your explorations, ideas, questions, and builds with us using the hashtag #CreativeConstructions to join the conversation and be featured in our inspiration gallery.
How can you use everyday materials in surprising ways? We've gathered some ideas for getting started.
There's a certain joy in building something bigger than you are! Explore ways to build big or small in any space.
Make your own reusable cardboard construction set! Cut slots in component parts to connect pieces together.
You can take on construction projects anywhere and everywhere, from the kitchen table to a clearing in the forest.
Make new pieces and invent creative connections to add personality and functionality to your construction toys.
Take your projects outside by using branches, leaves, rocks, and other natural materials.
A single type of material can become a component part to make a modular construction set.
Bring your build to life with stop motion animation, or use a time lapse to capture your construction process.
Playfully explore balance, stability, angles, and other STEM concepts.
Explore material ideas
Out of resourcefulness and necessity, many of us are looking around and noticing the surprising potential of everyday materials even more than usual. Through this lens, we've been using ordinary and recycled materials to make and test out different sets of component parts that support playful exploration through construction. What materials are you exploring? Below are some ideas from makers, educators, and families.
Pick a place
You can take on construction projects anywhere and everywhere, from the middle of the floor to a clearing in the forest. Here are a few considerations that we take into account when choosing or designing an environment for construction projects:
Scale: Choosing a space will influence the scale of construction. Will you build a cardboard fort that takes over an entire room? Or clear off a table to make a teeny tiny toothpick sculpture?
Stations: Working in a big communal space can support building together in a group or as a family. Creating separate building stations can support focused independent work and protect learners' builds until they're ready to share. We often like setups that allow for building in parallel over video calls or at large tables so we can peek at one another's projects!
Levels: Make your building area welcoming and accessible! When working with younger learners, we like using tabletops without legs as low building platforms (pictured).
Elements: Will you build on a stable surface or a wobbly one? Is your project designed to be indoors or to withstand the elements? Each space brings its own challenges and affordances, so choosing where to build can be an important part of the construction process too.
Build with Slots
No connectors? No problem. Slotted construction allows for connections between all different kinds of cardboard component parts without glue, tape, or other connector materials.
Play with scale
There's a certain joy in building something bigger than you are! Cardboard and other lightweight materials work well for larger than life sculptures and structures.
Whether it's an accurately sized model of your pet or a giant tower that touches the ceiling, building at home can mean thinking a little bigger than usual. Maybe you'll make a cardboard obstacle course, complete with a tunnel that you can actually crawl through. Or take advantage of furniture already in the space to build a couch and cushion fort.
If you have big ideas but a small work space, consider creating a figure to indicate the intended scale of your creation. Our friends at Artencurs shared this idea along with the top left photo with us. They invited participants to create figures to indicate the imagined scale of their construction. Even a tabletop build can suddenly become a giant public art installation for your favorite park or a design for a dream treehouse!
Mod your construction toys
There's no reason to start from square one if you already have a construction set! Exploratorium exhibit developer Tara Pratap Ebsworth made these cardboard pieces to add a little whimsy to a set of Tinkertoys. In this case, Tara created a set of playful shapes with cutouts to catch the wind in different ways to support experiments with making windmills. Consider creating new parts to add some personality to your construction set, like hands or patterned shapes. Think about what types of connectors you can invent to build onto your kit.
Make it move
Make with multiples
A single type of material can become a component part to make a modular construction set. Building with many multiples of a single material automatically creates visual cohesion and is accessible to learners of all ages.
The work of our friends and collaborators at Artencurs (left) with young builders serves as inspiration for what's possible using many modular parts to create interesting geometric structures.
In his Rolling Through the Bay sculpture (below right) at the Exploratorium, Scott Weaver used tens of thousands of toothpicks to create a San Francisco cityscape. In case you don't have thousands of toothpicks and 44 years, even toilet paper tubes (below left) can become a construction set that supports explorations of stability and balance.
Tip: Turn trash into treasure. Jake from the Tinkering Studio team used to build mazes using VHS tapes. Other makers have used old flip phones, and even irons to build elaborate structures. The next time you're cleaning out the closet, consider what old technologies or materials could serve as unusual component parts. This sculpture (left) by Lorenzo Durantini called Tower no. 5 is made entirely of VHS tapes.
Explore natural materials
Take your projects outside by building with natural materials. Start by gathering branches, twigs, leaves, rocks, and other materials that catch your eye as you walk around. If it's a sunny day, you might take a moment to notice how different materials catch the light and create shadows (left) and incorporate this into your build.
Think about scale, strength, and how you might connect different materials. If you collect lots of rocks, you can explore balance and stacking. You might even find a way to leave a message for the next person to stumble upon your creation, like a rock cairns. Consider making a sculpture that's specific to a certain site, like artist Andy Goldsworthy.
If you collect branches and leaves, you might experiment with rubber bands or string to make connections. Lashing together sticks can create particularly secure connections (below). The example featured here uses fluorescent orange flagging tape cut into thin, long pieces.
Explore math + engineering
While exploring structures and construction, learners naturally encounter engineering challenges and mathematical concepts. They may stumble upon questions about topics like strength, stability, geometric shapes, weight distribution, and angles -- even if they don't use those words. Think about introducing tools of measurement, like protractors or rulers, that can take builds further or add precision.
There are many different ways to explore Creative Constructions. We've collected a few into this handy flowchart (left). These are just some possible directions to explore, so don't hesitate to meander off the map.
Download your own diagram of possible pathways to play along!
Check out the wide array of materials and constructions our friends all around the world are exploring in our gallery below. We're continuing to collect ideas for and examples of everything from slotted construction sets and creative connectors to cardboard animal stop-motion animations and more! Use these as launching points for your own explorations, and then add your builds, questions, and observations to the conversation.
Our thought partners at Artencurs bring attention and aesthetics to their explorations with children of all ages. They curate materials, present thoughtful prompts, and treat documentation as part of the process of self expression. Their structure and construction explorations have informed our team's approach: from bringing in light and shadow and introducing questions of scale, to thinking through materiality and what building looks like over video calls.
This collective of artists based out of San Francisco was founded with the objective of making collaborative installations that allow the audience to enter and engage in a very participatory way. In 2017, CIT built a visionary dreamscape in the Exploratorium crafted completely out of cardboard, including: a village in a vortex, a crashed steamboat on a winding river, peepholes into the underworld, a desert motel, lush forests, and fiery volcanoes.
Michelangelo Pistoletto's large scale corrugated cardboard maze is a twisty and immersive take on cardboard construction.
There are a variety of approaches to attaching materials together, especially when it comes to cardboard. From creating slotted inserts to running skewer sticks through corrugation, different attachment techniques support different types of constructions. Inspired by Sarah Wyman, an art teacher at Festus Elementary School, we've collected a set of these techniques here.
Take a look at this visual boards for ideas, try some out, and invent your own! Consider collecting your favorite techniques into your own visual resource bank of creative connections.
Check out the array of submissions for the 2020 Cardboard Speed Challenge from Instructables to gather inspiration and ideas for your own build.
Continue your explorations of structure by interrogating what you consider a shelter. Take your thinking a step further with prompts like "imagine if...it got really hot or really cold—how would you change your shelter?"
Land artist and photographer Andy Goldsworthy's sculptures are site specific installations that use natural materials. "Goldsworthy crafts his installations out of rocks, ice, leaves, or branches, cognizant that the landscape will change, then carefully documents the ephemeral collaborations with nature through photography."
The beautiful illustrations in this story are created with different colors and textures of layered cardboard with hand-drawn details. So far we've found versions in Catalán, Italian, French, and Portugese.