Kids love playing with recycled materials
I used to be an elementary educator, and one of my favourite activities was recycled crafts for kids. I enjoyed seeing the kids’ creations and being able to re-use some of my art supplies. The kids just loved exploring with different materials.
I kept several bins of recycled materials on hand for making art and craft creations (Quick note: make sure recycled materials are safe, like no sharp edges and washed if necessary). Some great recycled materials for making craft projects with kids are:
- Scraps of colored paper and fabric
- Cardboard boxes and other small boxes (like from food packaging)
- Lids (metal jar lids or plastic lids from pop bottles and food containers)
- Plastic bottles, plastic containers and matching lids (like sour cream containers or yogurt containers)
- Toilet paper and paper towel rolls
- Used wrapping paper and tissue paper
- Old cards (they usually have lots of fun illustrations)
- Cardboard and plastic egg cartons
- Magazines, flyers and newspapers
During free time or indoor recess, I would often allow the kids free reign to make recycled crafts, with glue, tape, scissors, markers and their choice of materials. Sometimes this type of free form activity worked really well, other times the kids wanted ideas to spark their creations, so I printed off and posted some inspirational pictures. You could even add to their creative inspiration by reading the wonderful book, Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty.
Recycled crafts for kids at home
Now that I’m working from home and have my own children, we have fun making recycled crafts together too. This post includes some of our favorite recycled crafts for kids. I’ve also added some ideas of how making recycled crafts with kids can contribute to learning.
1. Recycled Craft for kids: cardboard box Elmer the Elephant (Inspired by the children’s book by David McKee)
We absolutely love the book Elmer the Elephant with its positive message about being proud to be who you are–the unique and beautiful you! One rainy day, we found some small boxes and toilet paper rolls in our recycle bin, and decided to try to make our own Elmer as a recycled craft for kids. Here’s what we used to make him:
- Two small boxes (one for the body and a smaller one for the head). I wrapped one of the boxes in white paper so it would be easier to paint later.
- Two toilet paper rolls cut in half for the legs
- Leftover cardboard to make ears, a trunk and a tail (our trunk looks different than Elmer’s in the book but that’s okay)
Next, onto assembling Elmer. For gluing in crafts, I highly recommend using Aleene’s Tacky Glue for crafting (this post has no affiliate links). From my experience, it’s just the best craft glue by far! It’s super strong and not too runny. With Aleene’s you’ll avoid the frustration of projects that won’t stick together.
After we glued on the all the elephant’s parts, we chose our colors of paints; we used acrylic pants, but you could use tempera paints too. We got to work painting colored squares all over Elmer, adding random colors and spacing them out from each other with our pallet of paints. I didn’t bother to sketch out the squares or trace them with a ruler. I just tried to keep the squares roughly the same size as we painted.
Painting Elmer took a lot longer than I thought it would. We had to use several coats of paint to get vibrant colors, but the end product made it worthwhile. Instead of painting, you could cut out squares of colored paper and glue them on to make a patchwork body.
As we painted, we talked all about the different colors on Elmer, and we retold the story of Elmer the Elephant, especially the part when he yelled “boo!!” and made all the other elephants laugh. I really enjoy children’s crafts that connect to picture books. It helps children develop language skills and make connections when they experience a book in a variety of ways.
Use a sealer for the finishing touch
For the finishing touch, I coated Elmer in two coats of clear Modge Podge (a sealing product). We wanted to make sure he’d last for playing or displaying on our shelf. Voila! Elmer is complete and ready to joke around with you.
2. Recycled crafts for kids: Tin foil robot
Robots are another popular theme for recycled crafts with kids. There are so many options you can take with robots. I like the freedom that making them offers kids to create their own unique characters.
My daughter and I made this robot from recycled boxes, toilet paper rolls, metal jar lids, tinfoil and stickers. First, we covered the boxes and paper rolls with tinfoil. Next, we glued them together with (you guessed it: Aleene’s Tacky Glue). Finally, we glued on the lid eyes and add the stickers and marker details.
My daughter called her robot Wall-E, after the movie. She talked about where her Wall-E lived and all the different things he could do with his buttons.
3. Recycled crafts for kids: cardboard box dollhouse apartment
I’m not sure about you, but because of online shopping we seem to have so many cardboard boxes. There are tons of possibilities for crafts and activities with cardboard boxes. One simple idea is to make a toy apartment. We made ours by gluing three boxes together and then decorating the walls and floors with patterned scrapbook paper. This is a simple craft that also becomes a homemade toy.
Furnishing your recycled box apartment
We had some dollhouse furniture from another toy, so we filled our apartment with those items, but you could also make simple furniture from cardboard or other recycled materials (a yogurt container could be a chair, a box could be a bed). If you don’t have patterned paper for the walls, you could decorate the apartment with markers or paint. Another way to add to your recycled apartment would be to cut out (from flyers or magazines) pictures to decorate the different rooms, like gluing paintings on the walls, or cutting out pictures of lamps or mirrors.
If you don’t have the right sized dolls for your apartment, you could even cut out your own family or characters from magazines and glue them to cardboard to make them sturdy. By adding a simple cardboard stand to the bottom, your custom made dolls will be able to play their fancy new apartment.
If you’d like to add stairs or an elevator
We didn’t make any stairs for this project, but you could make some with folded cardboard, or if you’re feeling ambitious, you could try creating an elevator to glue on the side. This Youtube video shows how to build a simple cardboard elevator with a stick, string, glue and cardboard. I haven’t tried this, but it looks like it would be fairly easy to construct.
When we were working on our recycled box dollhouse apartment, we talked about the different rooms of the house and the different types of furniture and items that you usually find in each room. My older daughter got involved in the project too through imaginary play with the apartment. She created a whole story for about the family who lived in the apartment. This simple project kept my girls interested for several days.
4. Recycled crafts for kids: Egg carton faces
When I saw this inspiration from Mini Mad Things. I had to try it! I love the look of these egg carton and cardboard faces. The shapes lend so many possibilities to make cool-looking recycled craft characters. Simply cut out different parts of the egg cartons and cardboard pieces and glue them together. Once you’re done you can paint or color them with pastels or paint crayons. Because my daughter loved this recycled craft so much, for a playdate I put out all the needed supplies and the kids had an awesome time making their own funny faces.
5. Recycled crafts for kids: Magazine pet collage
Recently we were looking for a fun way to make a card for a family friend. We decided to print out some pictures of his cat (Milo), and then we showed Milo having all kinds of adventures by cutting and pasting the cat’s pictures into different scenes using magazine pictures.
The card was a huge hit! We laughed a lot while making it, and our friend loved it so much. It’s a simple, but fun idea that has endless possibilities depending on the magazines or flyers you might have in your recycle bin. You can make any kind of recycled craft pet collage with simple supplies you likely have around the house.
6. Recycled crafts for kids: Cardboard sensory puzzle
Sensory puzzles create an opportunity for kids to play and explore with different types of textures and materials. Sensory play is often a relaxing and developmentally stimulating experience at the same time. You can create your own sensory puzzles with your kids by using recycled craft materials and art supplies. I made this dinosaur puzzle with my daughter.
Start with an outline
Sketch an outline for your puzzle on a piece of recycled cardboard. I recommend sticking with a simple silhouette that doesn’t have a lot of complex curves or small details. If you don’t trust your drawing skills, you can print out a picture from the Internet and trace it.s
Next, cut some strips of cardboard and use a glue gun to attach them around your outline. Once you have a completed shape, you can decorate as you please. We used some painted towel paper that we’d made in another activity.
Ready to play
Once your puzzle is done, you can put out some sensory materials to play with. Be mindful of the size of the items depending on the age of the kids who are playing–watch out for choking hazards. If you’re using this idea with children under three, you can make a simple sensory dust by grinding up cereal in a blender. It’s taste safe too. The puzzle part of the play is allowing kids to fill and empty their puzzle using different scoops or their hands.
Learning while crafting
While we worked on this art project, we talked about different kinds of dinosaurs and their characteristics (long neck, short neck, sharp claws, etc.). We compared big dinosaurs with smaller dinosaurs. This type of rich dialogue helps to develop language skills and sitting side-by-side doing activities together builds a bond. In this way, no matter what craft project you’re working on, the way you talk about what you see on the page, the materials that you’re using or the processes you’re using (cutting, pasting, tracing, drawing, etc.) is an opportunity for your child to learn vocabulary and related concepts while having fun with you.
I hope these recycled crafts for kids inspire you to find new ways to craft and learn with recycled materials. There’s a satisfaction in seeing something transformed into something new. It’s also handy to be able to use items you likely have at home. Remember that for kids creating is often more about the experience than the end result. Happy crafting!
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy our ideas for spring play activities.
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