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Recycled Materials: A Resource for Young Children’s Creative Expression and Design Thinking

Aug 3 2013

By Nancy Howe, Head Teacher

Exploring and creating with recycled or “found” materials is a big part of everyday life at Bing Nursery School, much to the benefit of both the children and the environment.

Recycled, or “found,” materials represent an abundant, sustainable and affordable resource for young children’s creative self-expression. They are also a great resource for design thinking, a methodology for problem solving that focuses on creative thinking to generate insights and solutions. Each Bing classroom is equipped with a design table where children have access to an array of recycled materials, for example, bottle caps, fabric scraps, gift wrap, strawberry baskets, ribbons and toilet paper tubes, as well as tools such as scissors, glue, staplers, tape and hole punches. As design thinkers, tinkerers and makers, children have the opportunity to enter into a dynamic relationship with these open-ended materials, exploring their unique characteristics and properties, confronting problems and in the process creatively discovering solutions. They are inspired not only by the possibilities inherent in these materials, but also by their teachers and peers as they collaborate, innovate, make mistakes, redo and ultimately discover what the material wants to become.

Children’s physical development is enhanced when they explore found materials. They not only build their eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills but also their ability to discern sensory input including sight, touch and hearing as they notice how found materials look, feel and sound. Children also gain important knowledge about tools and materials as they learn techniques and practice skills like joining, adhering, cutting, stapling, taping and gluing. This is illustrated by Ananya in the following anecdote.

Ananya, Christopher, Kai and Daniel sat down to explore found materials that were displayed at the design table. Ananya was interested in the gray packing foam. She picked up a piece and put it to her cheek. “I feel like I’m going to take this home and sleep on it!” Then she took a pair of scissors and started to cut the foam. “Look, I cut this piece of foam off. It’s harder to cut than paper.”

Exploring found materials also benefits children’s language development. It gives them the opportunity to articulate and express in words what they have made, how it works, what it does, how they feel about it and why it is important to them. Explaining their work to others not only encourages vocabulary acquisition, but also fosters children’s ability to think abstractly. Gabe’s creation of a marble trap is a good example of a child discussing his work in this way.

Gabe was inspired by a cardboard paper towel tube and a triangular cardboard structure used for packing. “I’m making a marble trap.” He cut many pieces of masking tape, adhering the tube to the inside of the triangle, until he felt the tube was secure. Then he described how his marble trap worked.

Gabe: The marble is first here (top of triangular structure) and then it catapults into the tunnel (paper towel tube) and then it goes somewhere and then it goes to the booby trap. The marble cannot escape. Oh, I almost forgot to make the booby trap!

Teacher: How are you going to make the booby trap?

Gabe: I don’t know. I’ll just figure it out.

Gabe’s creative confidence quickly dissipated when he realized that his design was faulty and that there wasn’t enough room for the marble to enter the tunnel.

Gabe: Oh no! It’s not going to work! The tunnel is too close to the edge.

He quickly found a solution.

Gabe: Oh, I have a good idea. I have to move it further back so the marble can get in. Now it will definitely go in the booby trap. I can just take the tape off.

A mistake had turned into an opportunity to iterate, to redo with the purpose of making it better. Gabe proceeded to take all the tape off and start over again. He repositioned the tunnel so that there was room for the marble to enter. He re-taped the tunnel until it was secure again.

Gabe: After school I’m going to get a marble and try it out. It’s definitely going to work! It has to work because I made it so good!

The benefits to children’s cognitive development are many. 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. Additionally, teachers and children can discuss the importance of recycling and raise environmental awareness in the children who will be the stewards of our planet. Through hands-on “take aparts,” young children make sense of technology by taking apart non-functional appliances like toasters, sewing machines and CD players.

Children have the opportunity to engage socially as they explore found materials. They share techniques, model the use of tools and materials and collaborate with one another, especially when making props to use in pretend play. Daniel demonstrated the social value of these materials as he created his own props for imaginative play.

Initially, Daniel did not have a plan for what he wanted to make, but when he noticed a long strip of matte board, he decided to explore all the different things the strip could become:

He used a piece of tape to hold both ends of the strip together. “Look, it’s a crown.”

He folded the strip at angles. “Now it’s a square!”

He made a smaller circle with the strip and held up to his forehead, transforming it into “a cyclops’ eye.”

He curved the strip one way and then the other and it became “an ‘s’!”

Then he turned it upside down and quickly discovered that “A hook is an upside down ‘s’!”

After Daniel’s initial exploration with the strip of matte board, he decided to use a variety of materials to make a prop for imaginary play. After he had constructed his “squirt gun,” Daniel articulated in detail what he had made to his friends.

“It’s a squirt gun that shoots out water when you push this button. It comes out through this little rectangle. You don’t even have to fill it up with water. You can see the water fill up in the window. It just goes through the pipes all around in a circle near the button and then it goes through a pipe that leads to here. You know how far the water can go? 60,000 miles away from where you are! And it’s so strong that if you shoot someone, it can knock them down but it doesn’t really hurt them because it’s just water!”

Exploring found materials benefits young children’s emotional development by building a sense of “creative confidence.” It gives children a sense of pride and accomplishment when they innovate, when they make something unique, when they struggle and succeed. According to Sir Ken Robinson, a British educator, “teaching creativity is as important as teaching literacy.” Robinson feels that children are born with tremendous talents and creative capacities. It is vital to our future that this innate creativity, in all its diversity, be encouraged to develop and flourish.

Repeated experiences with recycled materials allow children not only to learn the characteristics and properties of each material, but also to consider other perspectives to their work. Recycled materials naturally invite reflection. When children have opportunities for revisiting concepts they can remember their previous experiences, ideas and strategies. Ascertaining children’s intentions and interests, teachers have an opportunity to decipher children’s pertinent and relevant meaning imbued in these experiences. When engaged in using recycled materials as a community, a shared aesthetic, vocabulary and collaborative creative spirit can develop!

Teacher Stephanie Holson’s notes on the benefits of found materials for young children contributed to this article.

A History of Found Materials

From the beginning of time, people have recycled, repurposed and reused, making their homes, clothing, utensils, toys and art from what was readily available in their environment. The resourcefulness and ingenuity of people who invent out of necessity are present all over the world today, especially in the developing world.Jugaad, the Hindi word for an innovative, improvised solution born from ingenuity and cleverness is calledzizhu chuangxin in China, gambiarra in Brazil, jua kali in Kenya and DIY in America. All carry on the tradition of bricolage, the French word for using what is at hand. In fact, the endurance of humankind is testament to the ability to think frugally and flexibly to develop innovative solutions.

Artists have historically used recycled or found materials in their work: the paper collages of Picasso and Braque, the shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell, the sculptural wood collages of Kurt Schwitters and Louise Nevelson and the assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg. Self-taught, or “outsider” artists, have incorporated recycled materials into their work because they are affordable and readily available. Martin Ramirez, one of the greatest “outsider” artists of the twentieth century, whose work has been showcased in major museums all over the world, was institutionalized for most of his life and “discovered” by a visiting psychologist. He managed to make art in spite of his circumstances from what was at hand, including examining table paper and glue made from potatoes and water. Environmental artists Andy Goldsworthy, Jim Denevan and Patrick Dougherty have all used materials found in nature in their art.

Teachers of young children have long recognized that found materials have value for children’s creative self-expression. In 1968, renowned Japanese American sculptor and San Francisco art educator and activist Ruth Asawa co-founded the Alvarado School Arts Workshop. It was an innovative program that involved parents and professional artists in the public schools. They started with almost no money and throwaway objects—milk cartons, egg cartons, scraps of yarn, and flour, salt and water. They spent the summer working with baker’s clay, an inexpensive and safe material used to introduce children to sculpture.

Asawa became a member of the San Francisco Arts Commission and began lobbying politicians and charitable foundations to support arts programs that would benefit young children and average San Franciscans. At its peak, the workshop was in 50 public schools in San Francisco. It employed artists, musicians and gardeners and recruited thousands of parents to be involved in public education. Four decades later, the San Francisco Arts Education Project, inspired by the Alvarado Arts Workshop, operates in more than two dozen San Francisco schools and reaches over 7,500 students a year with its vibrant arts education program.

Today’s teachers have access to many resources for recycled materials to use in their classrooms. Recycling centers specifically for teachers, like SCRAP (Scrounger’s Center for Reusable Art Parts) in San Francisco and RAFT (Resource Area for Teaching) in San Jose, are a direct result of the early efforts of Asawa and the parents, teachers and professional artists who recognized the importance of recycled materials as a resource for young children’s creative expression.