Using Recycled Materials in an Early Learning Environment


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Because early learning programs often have a limited budget, teachers work hard to find clever, unique, low-budget materials to use in their classroom. Recycled materials, also referred to as “found materials,” are easy to access, versatile, and economical. They can be incorporated into a variety of classroom activities, such as canvases and materials for art, and loose parts for construction projects. In addition, offering recycled materials to children creates an opportunity to talk with them about sustainability, eliminating waste, and reusing valuable products.

From plastic containers to cardboard boxes to toilet paper rolls, the possibilities really are endless for what can be salvaged and re-used as classroom materials. 

Open-Ended Experiences to Support Development

Recycled materials can inspire imagination by offering children opportunities to explore and create new forms of art, building, and design. 

Nancy Howe, Head Teacher from Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School, shares how children can develop foundational math and science skills with the help of found materials. “When given an assortment of materials, children have the opportunity to practice sorting, categorizing, counting, exploring the concept of parts and whole, matching, pattern making, and spatial arrangement. Found materials can engage young children in an exploration of scientific phenomena and natural sciences in an engaging, developmentally appropriate way.”

Howe adds that social engagement and language development can be encouraged with the help of recycled materials. As they explore recycled materials, children interact with peers and learn valuable social skills by collaborating and sharing techniques. As children articulate and express what they have made, how it works, and how they feel about their design, they practice abstract thinking and using new words to enhance thoughts and ideas.

Materials to Collect and Save

With limited classroom storage space, it is important to be thoughtful about materials collected. Before saving items, think about how they can be used, how much room they will take to store, and whether or not they are safe for young children to handle (special caution should be used by caregivers working with infants and toddlers to consider whether items are a choking hazard). While this requires thinking outside the box, it helps to be intentional and thoughtful with items that are saved.

Materials that can easily be collected for a wide variety of learning opportunities include (but certainly are not limited to!) the following: 

  • Toilet paper and paper towel rolls 

  • Keurig K-cups 

  • Loose paper scraps 

  • Cardboard pieces & boxes 

  • Foam pieces 

  • Old CDs 

  • Unused Straws

  • Tissue paper pieces 

  • Plastic or glass jars (nut butter jars should be avoided for allergy consideration)

  • Corks 

  • Popsicle sticks 

  • Spools from ribbons 

  • Fabric scraps

  • Egg cartons


More Project and Activity Ideas

The uses for recycled materials are endless. Let your imagination and the children’s imagination run wild coming up with ideas for exploring, building, and creating! Below, you will find some fun, inspiring ideas:

  • Tabletop Loose Parts: Children are offered a variety of loose parts and are given no direction from adults. They simply are invited to explore the materials and create! 

  • Process Art with Recycled Cardboard: Children will get to explore different textures of cardboard by drawing and painting with a variety of art materials. This activity can be done with paint, markers, crayons, and even chalk for children to explore the way different materials look and feel against the cardboard. 

  • Recycled Sensory Bin: Add a variety of recycled materials for children to touch, feel, stack, scoop, and explore. Children will enjoy getting to feel the variety of textures, weights, and shapes of the different pieces that are added. 

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