students in Grade 3 classroom

It’s that time of the year. The clock has sprung forward and so has my students’ energy, resulting in my energy falling back. This is the time of year when I start to filter my wild and crazy project ideas in an attempt to make things easier. However, as A.J. Juliani stated in his 2019 blog post, The Real Reason It’s So Difficult to Start Project Based Learning: “When we innovate in our classrooms and schools we shouldn't expect it to make life easier.” The project that most recently made it through my filter did not feel easy, it did not feel neat, and it was not perfectly planned weeks in advance, but it did allow my students to create, collaborate, communicate and think critically. 

A few days after introducing my third-grade class to a video about a boy named Caine and his cardboard arcade, Caine’s Arcade, I sat and attempted to check emails during an indoor recess. However, I found myself distracted by the enthusiasm and enjoyment of my students as empty boxes transformed into claw machines and pulley systems were constructed out of leftover holiday string. We were on the cusp of a unit on economics and my mind started to wander. What if I scrapped the future plans and let the kids continue making the arcade? I found myself consumed by cardboard dreams.  

Economics Lessons Abound

Before I could even finish my project proposal, students began forming groups and brainstorming. What they would produce? A good or service? What materials would they need? The first lesson in economics was underway. Next came the building phase. Students had access to basic materials such as paper, glue, pencils, and markers.

students setting up their PBL project

However, items such as boxes, tape, staplers, and other specialty items presented the second economics lesson in how supply and demand impact pricing. Some groups began with items such as a stapler, while the other group had staples. They traded and bartered to get what they needed. When the building phase was underway and the tape was flying off the roll I stopped replenishing the stock. Soon the requests for more tape began and we stopped to discuss scarcity. At this point, I couldn’t help but notice how engaged my students were during these mini-lessons. This was not the classic “read the yellow highlighted word in your textbook” social studies lesson. 

Soon the hardest part of each day was cleaning up the arcade and transitioning into math workshop. We decided as a class to add more work time by incorporating multiplication into our games. The transition to math workshop wasn’t much easier, but at least students were practicing math facts while working, right? The building continued and students collaborated, communicated, created and thought critically as their initial designs failed and they problem-solved and persevered.  

Literacy and History Connections

Before I knew it, the arcade was working its way into every aspect of our curriculum. I went off script, literally, and substituted the Rosie Revere, Engineer series as mentor texts for mini-lessons on making connections. Students connected to books such as Ada Twist, Scientist, Iggy Peck, Architect, On a Beam of Light, and Sarabella’s Thinking Cap


students presenting their PBL project


Students also connected to historical figures such as Rosie the Riveter, Ada Lovelace, Amelia Earhart, Albert Einstein, and many more. This also provided a basis for discussions focused on the powerful themes and messages pulled from the stories and words of characters such as Andrea Beaty’s character Aunt Rose in Rosie Revere, Engineer, who exclaimed, “Your brilliant first flop was a raging success! Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next! Life might have its failures, but this was not it. The only true failure can come if you quit.” I was hoping this project of cardboard creations and their obsessive creators would be more raging success than brilliant first flop.  

Open for Business!

The next step was to school students in the art of advertising to attract customers. Students used iMovie, Keynote, business cards, and the classic poster board to spread the word about their product or service. Let’s be honest, I had already asked the other third-grade teachers and our first-grade buddy class to come to the arcade, but the unknown was a great motivator. Advertisements were unveiled and the buzz had gotten around. Students were nervous. How do you practice opening a business? 


student presenting their PBL project to other students


We held a soft opening and led our first-grade buddy class through our games. This gave students the opportunity to adjust ticket pricing, identify and solve problems, and reflect before opening. One student who had struggled with his product decided he would better serve the arcade as a manager. Teaming up with another student, they created an arcade guide, established guidelines and procedures for employees, and wrote up a contract.  
The morning of the grand opening, the energy in the air was palpable. Students beamed as they entered the room and ran to their products, tinkering and rehearsing. The managerial team, dressed in hats and ties, walked about the room taking final photos of games and their creators and offering their help. It was at this moment that I realized how transformative this experience had been for students. They were excited, focused, confident, and in control of their learning. There was a place for students of all strengths to shine and be impactful. When the door closed behind the final customer, the cardboard creators reflected on their work and so did I.  

Reflecting on Student-Driven Learning

I loved this project but would I do it exactly the same next year? Most likely not. Student and class dynamics are never the same and neither are the projects and learning experiences. I would love to do this project next year but I want to leave the door open for new projects. I have found my favorite moments are rarely the ones I have meticulously planned because in reality those never turn out the way I expect them to.  Don’t forget to let the students lead the learning—even when it doesn’t match the plans.  

Samantha Zang, 3rd grade teacher, West Chester, Pennsylvania