Ask Maxwell: The Time Capsule – Another Idea to Keep Children’s Art

published May 19, 2021
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Hey, Maxwell, I heard that when you were a teacher you kept a box of your students’ artwork for twenty years. Is that true? What happened to it?


Dear Anon,

It is true! Back in January of 2000, I was in my second to last year of teaching elementary school. As my class and I crossed the millennium mark and all the fears of Y2K subsided, I had the idea of asking my class to write down where they would be in 20 years, 2020, when I would call them up to come back to school for a reunion. Here’s a picture of the class that year, at the top of the old World Trade Center. That’s me on the left.

Credit: Maxwell Ryan

They were all about 10 years old at the time; in fourth grade. One January morning, I gave them a time capsule assignment and each spent the work period neatly writing down where they would be, what they would be wearing and doing for a living and how they would be traveling back to our school on the Upper East Side in 20 years.

Credit: Maxwell Ryan
This is by Victoria Coverdale, who now owns and runs a delicious bakery on Long Island.
Credit: Maxwell Ryan
This is by Matthew Kruszelnicki, who founded Gnarmads and travels the world uniting communities of skaters, travelers, cyclists, artists, explorers, snowboarders, musicians and overall life enthusiasts.
Credit: Maxwell Ryan
Credit: Maxwell Ryan
Credit: Maxwell Ryan

In addition to those essays, I kept ONE BOX of prime artwork from all of them — grades first through fifth — and held onto it in my basement, waiting for the year 2020. The idea was to have a reunion last year at our old school, The Rudolf Steiner School on 79th Street.

Credit: Maxwell Ryan
This is a first grade "Planet Book" by David, Victoria, Meghan, Andrew and Winifred. It was not an assignment! They just did things like this during free time.
Credit: Maxwell Ryan
Credit: Maxwell Ryan

Due to the pandemic, that wasn’t possible, so I started to leak all the artwork out on Instagram for them over the course of a few months leading up to Christmas. It looked like this:

Credit: Maxwell Ryan

It was a lovely, slow way to share back all their work and we finally met in a series of Zoom calls in January of this year. They are all now right about 30 years old and doing amazing things! We will do a proper reunion as soon as COVID clears. BUT, over the past few weeks, as I’ve been thinking about the many questions I’ve been getting about preserving artwork, I thought to share this idea because I think it’s a lovely way of involving young children in preserving their own work.

So, here’s the idea…

Every year or every five years — you choose — sit down with your son or daughter in front of a pile of their recent work, and build a time capsule together, making an agreement that you won’t open it again for X years (maybe 10 or 20??) You can even buy a stainless steel time capsule on Amazon if you want to bury it (but you don’t have to). I also found some sweet wooden boxes on Etsy, which you can engrave and go all out.

The point here is that you are A. editing your child’s work together (and you may find they are much better at decluttering that you are); and B. creating a future memory together and a moment when you’ll come together with wonder to see what he or she was like back then. That is the magic moment, but if you don’t consciously ensoul it, you can easily end up with a box of old drawings that they don’t care too much about!

I will say, for the record, that my own excitement over digging up my students’ old essays and artwork was incredibly deep and moving for me, but it was not entirely the same for them. They found it amusing that I’d kept my promise and happily chuckled at the things they had written and drawn way back when. The fact that I’d remembered them and cared was the main thing. In the same way, this is the purpose for you in preserving your children’s artwork.

Children thrive when they are given loving attention by their parents and the adults in their life. They develop self worth out of knowing that they are loved and worthy human beings. Preserving their work as children should be the same thing, otherwise it’s just clutter, so here’s my tip: Make it special. Do it together and connect with them. Make it a time capsule and then plant it for a future date. It will be a lovely moment when you both come back to it again, but, more than that, you will be giving them the type of strength we all need.

Best, M

Credit: Maxwell Ryan

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Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

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