Upcycling with Kids: Making “Garbage” Fun!

Copyright Philippe Put, 2011

Copyright Philippe Put, 2011, *Text added

Whether you are a child care provider, a parent, or someone else who works with young children on a regular basis, one thing that every one of you have likely realized; having children is not cheap. As a parent there is the cost of daily care; doctor’s visits, the dentist, extracurricular activities, food, clothes, school supplies — and that is without any of the “fun stuff” like toys and treats. Even as an early childhood professional the cost of care is a daily reality, with crafts, games, and lessons for every moment of every day to plan for– materials can get costly. This is where upcycling comes in.

Upcycling is simply taking materials you already have around the house– knickknacks, extra wood and nails in the garage, recyclables– and making them into something fun or useful. It is a fast-growing trend since it is not only far less costly than purchasing toys from the store, depending on the extent of the project it is a chance to bring children in as part of making old materials into something new. It is a great learning experience about caring for the environment by recycling, what it takes to put the things we use together, and using your imagination.

Recently, SFTA staff member Romilia Schleuter challenged Milwaukee child care providers in her Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards and Pyramid Model trainings to create an art project or toy through upcycling. Here is what they came up with– and how you can make them too!

Milk Cap Caterpillar:
This is a great craft for school age children to make (there are too many small pieces for young children– it could present a choking hazard).

  • Materials: (Makes 1)
    – Six milk jug caps               – Strong glue
    – Two milk jug rings             – One Juice/Iced Tea jug top
    – Scissors
    – 12 narrow plastic tops, or something of a similar nature for the legs
    – Markers, stickers, or something else creative for the face!
    – One wire cut the length of 6 milk caps lined in a row

    – An adult should take a sharp knife or razor and cut straight across the bottom ridges of 5 of the milk caps, so that there are two cuts on either side of each of the milk cap edges, lined up with one another.
    – Children or an adult can put a little glue on these cuts, then press the wire into the milk cap cuts one at a time, with the smooth surface of the caps on the top until they are in a line like the photo above. Glue your juice or tea cap at the top of one end. Let dry until the pieces are sturdy.
    – Glue your caterpillar legs onto the bottom of the milk caps– two on each cap, one on each side.
    – Finally, children can decorate the remaining milk cap with the face they want. Glue this to the juice top with the decorated side facing forward. Now, clip your milk rings in half and tape or glue the ends to the edges of your face. Let dry, and you are done! Your caterpillar is ready to play. (*A little extra: Decorate the individual milk caps for the body before you connect them– paste on cotton balls or circles of fabric so your caterpillar is fuzzy)!

Pretty in Pink Peony:
Another innovative use for milk and juice caps– a great activity to do on a sunny day when you can put the finished flowers up to the windows and see the light shine through.

Materials: (Makes 1)
– 10 milk caps of whatever color(s) you choose.
– One large lemonade, orange juice, or other plastic bottle cap
– One round plastic juice top, yellow, orange, or white
– A thick wire about 8 inches long
– Hammer and nail

– An adult should carefully hammer a hole through the center of the juice/lemonade cap (try setting it on the ground outside or with a sponge underneath to make sure the nail does not poke through to your floor).
– Paste two milk caps back to back so that the smooth surfaces are facing out. Do the same with the remaining caps until you have 5 pairs of caps pasted together. Let dry.
– Paste the edges of the paired caps together so that the caps make a circle with all of their edges touching one another. Glue one of the round plastic juice tops in the center of the circle.
– Take your wire and bend it into whatever shapes you like– just make sure your two wire ends are straight with about half an inch of space before a bend. Glue one end of the wire inside the juice cap so the length of the wire sticks out. Glue the other juice cap in the center on the opposite side,smooth side out. Let dry.
– Finally, put your completed flower upright and stick the free end through the cap with the hole. Bend the bottom of the wire underneath the cap so that it stays in place. You are done! (*A little extra: This could be a great Mother or Father’s Day gift from young or older kids. For younger children you can let them decorate the different pieces before you put them together, and older children can assemble themselves! Make it extra special by placing a photo of the child in the center of the flower).

Have to “Hand” it to you Butterfly:
This is a very easy project to do as a group, or individually. Make it in spring to talk about the butterflies you see outside, or make it in the dead of winter to bring a little spring to life.

Materials: (Makes 1)
– Several sheets of construction paper           – Glue
– Markers, Crayons, or colored pencils           –  Scissors
– A toilet paper tube

– An adult or older child should prep the toilet paper tube by gluing a strip of colored paper around it and across the top and bottom if you choose. You could also skip this step and let children decorate the tube with markers or paint.
– If you are doing individual butterflies, have children trace both of their hands several times onto colored paper (or help them trace). If you are doing a group project you can have each child in the family or in your class trace each of their hands once.
– Have the children decorate their hand tracings. Use markers, stickers, paint, glue leaves collected from outdoors– get creative!
– Once the hands are decorated it is time to decorate the butterfly body (the TP tube). If it is a group project give each child a turn to add something, if it is individual give them time to use the art materials as they choose to decorate their tube.
– Now cut out the paper hands. If the children are able to use scissors, or even if they are just learning, let them try! It doesn’t have to be perfect– this is their project. Scissors are a great way to help children hone their fine motor skills. For very young children place your hand over theirs, and guide them through cutting.
– Time to put all of the pieces together! Paste the bottoms of your hand cut-outs to the back side of your butterfly body so that the fingers are facing out for the “wings.” Layer and spread out the hands for larger wings. Let dry, and you are finished! (*A little extra: Put dry beans or rice inside the tube and tape paper or cloth across the top and bottom. Now your butterfly makes a sound when you shake it!)

No-Water Flower Garden:
A fun way to reuse those toilet paper and paper towel rolls. Instead of flowers let the kids get creative and make vegetables, trees, animals, or whatever else is on their minds.

Materials: (Makes 1 or more)
– Toilet paper/Paper towel rolls     – Scissors
– Glue                                             – Markers and/or strips of construction paper
– Sturdy sheets of white poster board or cardboard

– Have children decorate as many cardboard tubes as they want for their art project. Use markers, paint, stickers, or cut and glue strips of different colored construction paper.
– Using scissors, cut, (or have children cut), circles from the decorated tubes by snipping off whole pieces from the ends, or cutting them in two across the width of the tubes. Leave some pieces whole for larger parts to use in your art.
– Give each child a sheet of sturdy paper, and let them glue their pieces together to form a work of art. They can make flowers, as in the pictures above, or they can make something else. Have them share what they made when they are finished. (*A little extra: Incorporate more materials into this project to make your collages even more colorful and sensory– try feathers, buttons, glitter, sandpaper, tin foil, etc.)

These crafts are only a few of BILLIONS of great upcycling ideas that are out there. I bet that you have a few more in your head right now! Have a brainstorming session. What can you make with one or more of the easily found materials listed below? Post your ideas and photos of what you make!

  • Tin cans, Wood scraps, Pieces of cloth/felt, Old t-shirts/socks, Rubber bands
  • Shaving cream, Popsicle sticks, Food coloring, Rocks, Yarn, Shoe boxes
  • Paper plates, Wax paper, Old pots/pans, Leaves, Grass, Milk cartons
  • Bottle/Juice tops, Toilet paper/Paper towel rolls, Plastic gloves, Egg cartons
  • Paper clips, Tupperware containers, Sand, Uncooked rice, Old furniture
  • Sponges, PVC piping, Food wrappers/boxes, Broken crayons, Old silverware
    …Whatever other random things you might find laying around your living room, kitchen, garage, attic, basement, backyard, etc.!

Want some more upcycling ideas to inspire you? Here are a few resources:
Upcycled Recyclables! 34 Recycled Kids Crafts and Activities
25 Upcycled Projects for Kids
Earth Day Activities for Kids: Upcycling
Creative Challenge: Egg Cartons
11 Ways to Turn Empty Boxes Into Fabulous Fun for Kids