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How to Use Everyday Items in ECE Classrooms for Creativity and Learning

Children have a special way of seeing the world. Their sense of creativity and imagination help them to see opportunities for play and learning all around them– even in everyday items! From cardboard boxes to bottle caps, young children have a natural sense of creativity that allows them to see all of the possibilities that everyday items hold. Incorporating these into your classroom presents opportunities for open-ended learning activities that allow children to build, create, and imagine. 

In this article, we share a variety of budget-friendly items that can be recycled or reused for creativity and play. They have the added benefit of launching conversations about reusing and repurposing old materials. 

Cardboard Boxes

Cardboard boxes are a great open-ended material that can be used for a variety of different projects and activities. Large boxes can be used for climbing in and out of, or for stacking to make large structures, while smaller boxes can be used as props for dramatic play or materials for art projects. If you’re feeling creative, you might even think about using some boxes to make play cars, trucks, or rocket ships that children can play inside of.

One particularly fun and creative activity is a cardboard box birthday cake. Boxes of different shapes and sizes can be stacked and stuck together with tape or glue so that children can paint and decorate the outside like a giant cake. This is a fun collaborative activity for a group that can be enjoyed by a variety of ages and abilities. And, it can be revisited over and over again! 

Click here to find more information about this activity. 

Plastic Bottles 

Recycled water bottles are one of the most popular recycled items in preschool classrooms. For infants and toddlers, clear, plastic water bottles can be filled with different items (such as beads, uncooked beans and rice, buttons, etc.), to make shakers or discovery bottles. An example of these bottles can be seen in the image to the right. Click here for detailed instructions as well as ideas for items to put inside the bottles. For older children, plastic bottles can be used for crafts, projects, and even science experiments.

Larger plastic bottles (such as 2-liter bottles of soda) are the perfect size for growing plants and creating mini-ecosystems, through which children can observe how plants grow and interact with soil, oxygen, and water. Click here to find detailed instructions for creating a terrarium out of recycled bottles with the children in your classroom.

Bottle Caps

Plastic bottle caps come in a variety of different sizes and colors, making them great for projects in which children practice sorting and counting skills. Individual letters or numbers can be written on each of the caps to help children practice their alphabet and numeracy recognition. The small size of bottle caps makes picking them up and moving them a fine motor skill development activity. For additional practice, you can place a pair of tongs by the caps and encourage children to pick up the individual pieces with the tongs!

Another fun idea is to invite children to decorate bottle caps with colorful felt stickers. Bottle caps can also be transformed into stamps children can use in art projects. Click here to find more details about setting up this activity.

Egg Cartons

Egg cartons are perfect containers for sorting and matching activities. Patterns can be formed by mixing and matching colored items, such as bottle caps, legos, pom-poms, or buttons. Click here to find more ideas about using egg cartons for pattern-making (seen in the image to the right). 

Egg cartons are the starting point for a variety of different arts and crafts. The shape of the individual spots on egg cartons make them well-suited for creating jellyfish, bugs, and shells for snails or turtles. When separated and paired with popsicle sticks, egg cartons can even be used to make fun masks or glasses!

Click here to find the detailed instructions for egg carton masks. 

Toilet Paper & Paper Towel Rolls

Toilet paper and paper towel rolls are readily available, and great for incorporating into craft projects. The image to the right shows how toilet paper roll edges can become stamps for painting and, when cut, the rolls can be transformed into flower and firework shapes.

Ribbon & Fabric Scraps

Small, soft ribbon and fabric scraps add texture to the art activities that you share with the children in your care. For example, ribbons and different fabrics can be attached to the end of sticks or twigs to create fairy wands. These can be made by younger children with some support from their teachers, while older children can make them independently. Encourage children to decorate the sticks with paint, stickers, glitter, pipe cleaners, and other art supplies that you have available. If you know that any family members of the children in your care are particularly crafty, invite them to save scraps of felt, ribbon, and trim from their projects to add interest to children’s art creations.

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