Build a city from boxes

For these kids, building a city – with the help of teachers and friends – is all in a day's work.

Ask third-grader Marmarah Similien what an ideal city needs, and you'll get a matter-of-fact answer: a science museum just for kids, she says. That's where she wants to work when she grows up.

So she built one – out of shoe boxes, construction paper, and Popsicle sticks. It's her addition to the cardboard city that she and her classmates built in June at the Thomas J. Kenny Elementary School in Boston.

Students in two third-grade classes spent five weeks learning about municipalities, touring neighborhoods near their school, and meeting with local architects (people who design and draw plans for buildings, roads, bridges, and so forth).

Then the students put the finishing touches on the miniature houses and buildings they built to make "City Park." It's their small-scale version of a modern city.

Occupying about half of a classroom floor, City Park includes everything the students feel a real city should have: school, pet shop, city hall, swimming pool, and a park with monuments (which appear to be white chess pieces). Black strips of plastic – representing streets – divide the neighborhoods into neat grids.

The city even includes a baseball field resembling Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox baseball team. It's complete with bleachers made from egg cartons and a large outfield wall (made from a cardboard box that once held books) that's just like the "Green Monster" at Fenway. (These kids love the Red Sox!)

Through a statewide Learning by Design program, students learned how to plan and construct a thoughtfully designed community – one they'd like to live in when they grow up.

It's about creating an awareness of what a community can offer, says Erica Olandt, an architect who worked with the students. It teaches them the skills to communicate their ideas about man-made and natural environments – and about themselves.

During the first two weeks of the program, students studied elements of architecture and design. They learned about technical terms such as facade (say fuh-SOD), a name for the front of a building. They also discovered how scaffolding is used to support builders and materials.

They also learned about scale. Using pipe cleaners, the students created "people" about 1-1/2 to 2 inches tall. It gave them an idea about how big to make the various elements of their buildings, says Paul Moore, an architect and volunteer. "You've got to think about the people coming into the building. You've got to put the door in a place that fits."

Many of the students worked in pairs. Sophia Joseph and a classmate designed the city hall. "It's where the mayor works," Sophia says. "And if you want something, you ask permission [at city hall]. If the mayor says 'yes,' you can do it."

City hall is the tallest building in City Park and has about "eight floors with 52 windows," she says. But there isn't an elevator. She was too busy figuring out how to make a chimney (a toilet-paper tube) point straight up from the roof. With the help of a glue stick – and an adult – she finally positioned it the way she wanted.

Wilders Pierre, Charles Labbe, and Ralph Hyacinthe designed the fire station with double-wide garage doors – for the firetrucks, of course. They chose to make their roof flat. That's because "I've been to a fire station, and I didn't see a [slanted] roof," says Wilders.

When the trio was deciding what color to make their roof, they settled on red. "We weren't sure what to do, so we took a vote," Wilders says. "[Charles and I] wanted the red."

That's the kind of teamwork that teacher Daniella Pierre-Louis is happy to see from her students. "The kids are working together and using each other's ideas," she says. Architects work that way, too. Everyone contributes to the final decisions.

The science museum for kids that Marmarah built was placed next to the public school in the center of City Park. That way she and her friends could visit the "dinosaur bone exhibit" or the gift shop on their half-hour lunch break.

Building cities is a lot of work, Marmarah says. It takes time and careful planning. But "it's also a lot of fun to build them."

So, are there any budding architects from this crop of students? "Nah," says Ralph with a big smile. "I want to go to high school and then be the president of the United States."

Should that happen, Ralph says he has some ideas for the nation's capital, thanks to the Learning by Design program: "More fire stations," he says. With red roofs, of course.

Be the architect of your own box city.

You don't have to be a student at Kenny Elementary School in Boston to build your own box city. It's fun for everyone. But you will need to save some empty cereal boxes, old Popsicle sticks, and cardboard tubes. They will become the buildings and bridges in your town.

Also needed are construction paper, glue, and markers, crayons, colored pencils, or paint – to decorate your city.

Once your materials are gathered, use pipe cleaners and paper to make "people" to live in your city.

You'll want the city and the people to be in scale. If you make the figures first – about 1-1/2 to 2 inches tall – that will give you an idea of the size to make your homes and other buildings.

Then start thinking about what elements you'd like your city to have. Will it include houses, stores, a library, churches, and schools? What about fire and police stations? Will it have a park, a sports stadium, a river, or bridges?

Once you've figured out what structures will be included, decide where all of it will go. You can sketch it on a piece of paper.

Next, create your buildings using the cardboard items, glue, and markers. Be creative but realistic. Remember, your scale figures have to live in the town you create. Did you make the doors big enough for them to fit through – but not too big?

Arrange each completed building and house on the floor or a large table. You can add streets using strips of black construction paper cut to size, or create "grass" with green paper or old carpet.

The final step is most fun: Name your town. What did you call yours?

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