Creative Recycling Using Found Materials to Build Environmental Awareness in Young Children
By Nancy Howe, Head Teacher
I have a collection of crab shells and rocks. I got the crab shells at the beach and the rocks next to a tree. And one of the rocks is all white and shaped like a triangle. And whenever I look at it, it reminds me of treasure.—Pablo
Young children have an inherent capacity to see the worthy in the seemingly worthless, the extraordinary in the ordinary. Intrigued by materials they find on the ground—fallen from a tree, washed up on a beach, lost, discarded, rejected, or abandoned—children incorporate these found objects and materials into their play, relying on their imaginations to create their own playthings.
Teachers at Bing Nursery School have long valued found materials, too, and have incorporated creative recycling into all areas of the curriculum, not only as art materials for collages and assemblages, but also as props and accessories for blockbuilding, water and sand play, science, number concepts, imaginative play, and storytelling. Bing teachers make regular trips to RAFT (Resource Area for Teachers), where donated recycled materials fill a warehouse. The materials are then organized in bins in Bing’s workroom. Each classroom, in turn, has a system for organizing and replenishing a small collection of materials. During winter quarter,
East AM and West PM focused on found materials as a long-term project. Several Bing teachers presented a workshop on the subject at the California Association for the Education of Young Children, and in May more than fifty Bing parents participated in the same workshop as part of the Bing Parent Seminar Series. A highlight of the evening was Chia-wa Yeh’s recently completed video, “Found Materials,” which will soon be available to parents for viewing throughout the year.
Found materials offer several important learning opportunities for children. On one level, they help to build an awareness of recycling as a concrete way to respect the earth and honor the natural limits of our planet. On another level, found materials join clay, paint, sand, water, and blocks as unstructured, open-ended media that actively engage young children, help them construct their knowledge and understanding of the world, and allow them creatively to express their thoughts, ideas, experiences, and feelings. Strawberry baskets, cardboard boxes, fabric scraps, buttons, shells, wood scraps—all can be manipulated, adapted, and transformed according to each child’s unique interpretation. In the words of Amelia Gambetti of Reggio Children, “Each object has an identity which encounters the identity of the child and forms a relationship.”
Found materials inspire and challenge children to be resourceful and inventive, to transcend boundaries, to recognize possibilities, and to represent their ideas symbolically. They encourage children to think abstractly, conceptualize, plan, predict, make decisions, and solve problems as they combine materials in inventive ways. Children gain competency in eye-hand coordination and fine muscle control as they cut, assemble, manipulate, use staplers, punch holes, tape, glue, hammer, and drive screws. They develop social skills as they collaborate to help each other, share what they have learned, and model techniques for the use of tools and materials. Children become more aware of different materials and their unique capabilities and affordances, distinguishing features such as color, shape, size, and texture and becoming more articulate in describing what they have made and how it works. Their sense of design and aesthetics increases as they consider form, spatial organization, composition, and the relation among objects. They use found materials as props in imaginary play and storytelling.
At the Bing seminar on found materials, parents learned many ways to use creative recycling at home:
Encourage children’s impulse to collect rocks, shells, leaves, bird feathers, keys, buttons, and so on.
Take children on scavenger hunts or collecting walks, carrying a plastic bag or basket to collect household items such as bottle caps and string or natural materials such as rocks, leaves, sticks, pinecones, and shells (see the collecting list below).
Have available a variety of containers (shoebox lids, egg cartons, baskets, clear storage boxes or jars of all sizes) to sort objects when you return. Using counting, matching, categorizing, and ordering, sort the collected objects by size, color, material, and other attributes.
Encourage children to make collages or assemblages with the objects they have found—same-color collages, collages or assemblages using found materials, mini-collages, circle collages. Use egg carton lids for holding selections of natural materials and sectioned egg cartons for highlighting individual items such as a leaf, a shell, or an interesting piece of fabric or paper. Present the materials attractively so that the children feel as if the table has been set for an honored guest. Give children time to handle and explore the objects and talk about their shape, texture, color, size, and material.
Provide children with a sturdy base (paper plate, shoebox lid, piece of cardboard cut from a cardboard box) and white glue to adhere objects. Clear contact paper set in a paper frame provides a sticky surface for flat materials like leaves, flower petals, or scraps of fabric or paper. Use another piece of clear contact paper on top, sticky side down, to sandwich the objects, and hang the composition in a sunny window.
Collect props and accessories for dress-up and dramatic play: shoes, hats, bags, a recycled keyboard or telephone, plastic dishes and cups, an old tea pot.
Provide cardboard boxes of all sizes for creating three-dimensional constructions. The constructions can be glued or taped together and painted.
Save plastic bottles and containers of all shapes and sizes for filling and pouring in a plastic dishpan, wading pool, bathtub, or kitchen sink. Add a sponge, a little food coloring or liquid soap, and a wire whisk or old-fashioned eggbeater.
Take apart a discarded appliance, using a magnetic screwdriver for easy removal of small parts. Provide children with a container for the screws, wires, and circuit boards they dismantle. Later, they can incorporate these objects into their collages, assemblages, or woodworking. (Caution: Avoid computer monitors and TVs, discard plugs, and supervise small children working with potentially chokeable parts.)
Retell a favorite or familiar story using ordinary objects as props. Or play a storytelling game, incorporating three objects chosen by the child into a story and then letting the child tell a story with your objects. This is a good game to play at a restaurant, on an airplane, or in the waiting room at the doctor’s office.
The following objects are all good materials for projects in creative recycling. Objects should be clean, nontoxic, free of sharp points and edges, and large enough to prevent swallowing.
dried and silk flowers
old magazines and seed
small parts of discarded toys, electronic devices and appli-
ances, clocks, etc.
natural objects: sticks, stones, rocks and pebbles, leaves, feathers, seed pods, acorns, pinecones, shells
sewing supplies: buttons, ribbon, lace, string, twine, raffia, yarn, fabric scraps
building materials: tiles, wire mesh, wood scraps, paint or linoleum samples
office supplies: old calendars, envelopes, stationery, photocopying paper
cardboard boxes: moving, shoe, jewelry, cosmetic
kitchen supplies: plastic containers of all shapes and sizes, paper bags, paper towel tubes, parchment paper, waxed paper, aluminum foil, egg cartons, plastic and metal lids and bottle caps, styrofoam meat trays, straws, paper baking cups, coffee filters