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Video: San Francisco kids build arcade in elementary school gym

Lawton Alternative School builds an arcade out of cardboard and other recycled materials every fall to kick off the school year. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

As most students begrudgingly get back into the groove of the new school year, pupils at Lawton Alternative School in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset can’t wait to tackle one of their first projects of the fall: building a playable arcade from scratch. 

Every fall, fifth graders at the K-8 school spend an entire day transforming its auditorium into a fun zone with an energy level comparable to five simultaneous Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties.

But there’s a catch: The students have to exercise their good ’ol-fashioned arts-and-crafts skills. They make the games primarily out of cardboard and other recycled materials—plus generous amounts of tape—to ensure they last through a rigorous testing regimen.

Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Which is to say, the entire school body, kindergarten through eighth grade, gets to play. The results are varied and unique in their own right, from a claw machine with a grabber made out of Red Solo cups and filled with fidget spinners to a hoop shoot game dubbed “mini toilet basketball.”

At back-to-school night, parents are encouraged to dial back their involvement in their kids’ projects in order for their ideas to be as organic as possible, according to fifth-grade teacher Yvette Fagan. 

“It’s cool because it’s something that they’re very prideful of,” Fagan said. “They have a sense of accomplishment, and they’re excited to have something that they created themselves be acceptable to their peers.”

The project has been a beginning-of-the-year tradition at Lawton for years, but it was originally inspired by an innovative Los Angeles boy named Caine Monroy, whose own cardboard arcade built out of spare boxes in his dad’s auto parts shop became a viral sensation over 10 years ago. Today, “Caine’s Cardboard Challenge” is enjoyed nationwide.

Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

“Everyone builds games that are creative and unique—not all are the same,” Ciara, one of the participating fifth graders, said. 

The students have no qualms with trading screens for the opportunity to let loose and show off their elaborate creations, according to teachers. It’s a welcome challenge that kids start ruminating on even before they walk in the door on the first day. 

“We start the first week of school. The kids are excited,” Fagan said. “They come in in fifth grade and they say, ‘When are we going to play Caine’s challenge? I know what game we’re going to make…I’ve been thinking about it since first grade.’”

Watch our video to get a glimpse into the Lawton cardboard arcade. 

Morgan Ellis can be reached at