Art From Recycled Materials

Our recycled art materials are stored in boxes alongside the beautiful buttons in glass jars, the brightly colored rolls of masking tape, and the full drawers of glue, paint, sequins and other collage-type materials. Elyse Recycled Materials 1

Materials are brought in on a regular basis by the children and their families. We have toilet paper and paper towel tubes, egg cartons and cereal boxes, packing cardboard and plastic food containers of all shapes and sizes. Berry boxes and jar tops, canning rings and wrapping paper all provide an endless supply or art materials as rich as the children's imaginations.

Elyse Recycled Materials 2

Parents have informed me that their children tell them at home, "You're not going to throw that out! We can use that in expressive arts!"

The children are always on the hunt for what can be re-used, re-purposed and turned into art. They come into the room with bags filled with treasures and big smiles on their faces. With their parents, they sort the materials among all our boxes, finding a place for everything.

As quickly as the materials come, they are taped together, decorated and played with before going home again transformed into wonderful, creative pieces of art.

Guidelines for making recycled art:

  • The children choose the materials they wish to use from the recycling boxes. Depending on what is available, you may want to limit the amount of materials that each child can use. This is often a good time to discuss 'fairness' and hear what the children think.
  • Colored masking tapestring, yarn, wire and glue sticks are readily available for connecting or combining items together.
  • The recycled materials may be complete in themselves, such as egg cartons, milk containers, tissue paper tubes, cereal boxes, oatmeal canisters, etc. More often, the children sift through the recycled materials in the drawers. They add whatever interests them to their art form.

Collaboration often occurs as one child becomes interested in the art of another: I encourage the children to ask permission before adding anything to another's work. "Can I help you?" often works well, although there is not always an invitation to join.

Many issues occur, both in asking to collaborate with another and during the collaboration itself; all of them can be rich in learning opportunities. Dealing with disappointment, showing leadership, sharing, reaching conflict resolution, experiencing friendship and communicating appropriately can all provide teaching moments as they occur naturally in the process of collaborating.

This project was worked on by two five-year-olds over a period of several weeks. Because it was so large, it remained on display on the shelves and was not sent home with either child. They often asked for it to be taken down so they could add more materials.

Elyse Recycled Materials 3

Guidelines for setting up a center for recycled art in the classroom (or home):

  • While the classrooms are print-rich, ask that the recycled materials contain as little print as possible. It allows for the children's own sense of color, design and decoration.
  • Be specific as to the size and quantity of materials you can accommodate. If you have a small amount of available storage, you can ask the parents to hold on to their contributions until there is space to store the supplies. It usually does not take long for what seem like abundant resources to dwindle.
  • Advise that all edges should be smooth and safe. Plastic pieces should be many times larger than what a child can choke on (or put up their noses!).
  • You could keep a small table in your room with colored masking tape and scissors as a permanent station near the recycling area. This works well if just a few children are working on a project.

In this seemingly unstructured environment, the structure of emotional literacy and intelligence is being built. Social skills are also developed within the same environment. In the process of making art from recycled and other materials, focus and concentration is expanded, friendships are enhanced, and joy emerges.

More on this next time: Art and Emotional Literacy

Cooperations Is Better than Conflict: Who Can Help?

The art skills of older children grow as fast as they do. As their art gets more complex, the children need each other to help execute their work. Encouraging them to help each other -- as another way to connect and a tool of peace -- is an ongoing practice in the Expressive Arts room.

“I need someone to help me hold this while I tape. Who can help?” requested a five-year-old boy. One child came to help him.

“I need more help,” said the boy as he balanced his artwork precariously. Another child came to help.

“And more and more help,” he lamented as child after child left their own work to come help.

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We, as teachers, often advocate for cooperation. We also encourage our children to become deeply engaged in their exploration. With the intense focus they develop, it can be challenging for children to stop and help another. I am always on the lookout for new ways of encouraging both perspectives.

Sometimes it's as simple as repeating one child's request, "Is there anyone who can help?" At times silence follows the question. Sometime I model helping. Other times I restrain from offering in case the children's response is not immediate. I've overheard children coming forward several minutes later saying, "I’ve finished making my art. Now I can help you!"

As teachers, we can also gently coach the child in need of help? • Can you ask again? • What if you used someone’s name before asking? • Are you able to ask in a different way? • Are you able to do a little more by yourself? • Could you wait until someone is free to help you?

We could use this as a teaching moment asking, "How does it feel to ask for help and have no one come?" Encouraging empathy and compassion may be as important as our jumping in to help a child in need. Sometimes this is the missing piece needed for a child to put down their own work and help a friend.

Having a visual on the theme of cooperation in the classroom encourages children to cooperate. This poster from the Quaker Center in London is a favorite. I have it on the wall with a rug beside it.

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When conflict arises between the children, one tool to use is to ask them to sit on the rug and figure out together what the pictures tell us. This can often be enough to shift the children from their individual perspectives to one of working together to find out a solution.

Cooperation is better than conflict. I'd be interested in how other teachers encourage this in their classrooms and schools.