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Trash to Treasure: Playtime doesn’t have to be expensive with these ideas!

Trash to Treasure: Playtime doesn’t have to be expensive with these ideas!

Sometimes as we struggle to keep kids busy and entertained we too easily look towards new toys and technology as the answer. Knowing which gadgets and toys are the best at keeping a child happy and educationally entertained can be both time consuming and eye popping in costs. The good news is you and your child (or classroom) have plenty of educationally fun activities right under your nose; you just need to know where to look!

 Providing children with “open-ended materials” enables them to be creative, use their imagination, allows for longer periods of “playtime” and encourages opportunities to engage with other children. Open-ended materials are just that, open-ended! They are materials that may be used for a variety of purposes don’t include complicated instructions or rules. Paper, blocks, art supplies, play-doh and art supplies are examples of “open-ended” materials.  

 These materials are often inexpensive and can be found within your home. Below are different ideas that use items many would consider trash. However, if you give these “trash” items to kids, you’ll challenge their creativity and see how they turn trash into treasure!

1)    Egg Cartons: Use these to create counting/sorting/matching games. At the bottom of each space use a marker to write a number (5) or color (red). Have children fill the egg slot with the matching number of items say 5 jellybeans, or a small red object found within the home or classroom.

 2)    Old Magazines/Newspapers/Coupon Books: These have so many uses!

 Arts & Crafts: Challenge kids to create themed collages or placemats, by tearing out pictures, letters or words and gluing on construction paper. Remember to personalize their skills level or what they are working on at school. Think of color collages, finding the letters to child’s name and address, collage of pictures that say “happy”, or find pictures of food for your ideal meal. Create original holiday or birthday cards by tearing out letters and pictures. Use full sheets of newspaper as wrapping paper and let your child draw on the newspaper with crayons or paint.  

 Games:  Depending on age and skill level, give the child either verbal or written instructions on what to find in their magazine/newspaper. Have them circle letters, words, colors, items or people depending on their goal. Look for odd numbers or find 10 yellow items and a woman with black hair etc. Often setting a timer for two minutes makes this activity even more fun!

 3)    Tin Foil:  This is one of my favorites as tin foil can be molded and shaped into so many creative forms. You could have children mold specific numbers or letters, or treat this as an art activity using their imagination to sculpt whatever they would like. Fine motor development and the tactile experience are added bonuses to this activity. Already used fin foil is perfect and different sizes are a plus! Just make sure the foil wiped down and clean!

 4)    Empty Boxes:  Use any box you can find (tissue boxes, cereal boxes, cracker boxes) and keep them intact to be used as building blocks. Adding tape to the edges helps with the sturdiness.  Larger boxes for appliances or moving boxes can be made into anything with creativity and markers…play houses, cars, forts etc..

 5)    Stale Food: Before throwing away old food, consider if kids could get any use out of it.  Beans can be made into bean-bags using just a sandwich bag and sock or make bean mosaics. Hard marshmallows and toothpicks can make amazing structures and pasta can be painted, colored with markers and threaded onto string to make necklaces or bracelets. Together try to come up with more ideas.

 6)    Paper Towel Rolls: Both toilet paper and paper towel cardboard cores have endless options. With scissors, tape and markers, kids can create homemade megaphones, flutes, tunnels for cars and so much more!

 7)    Treasure Box: Create a “treasure box” that is full of basic and still useful bits of clean “trash.” Fill the box with random items you stumble across – think packing peanuts, bubble wrap, pieces of ribbon, left over pieces of wrapping paper, tissue paper scraps, milk caps, cardboard, broken jewelry etc. Along with the box full of random items, provide kids with other tools- scissors, glue, markers, and construction paper and let their creative minds run wild! Whenever you encounter those clean, random items or scraps that usually end up in the trash, get one last use out of them and throw them in the box! Encourage the kids to add to the “treasure box.”

 Remember, creativity is a skill so it must be nurtured and practiced. Above are a few ways to encourage children to use their imaginations when they play. Look around your home or classroom and try to find new uses for old or worn out things. Helping children learn to reuse materials reduces waste, keeps our wallets fuller and teaches kids to be creatively resourceful. Have fun!

 Elissa Sungar is the Co-Creator of If Not You, Who?  a free website that offers easy and fun in-home educational activities that help prepare children for kindergarten and life.  Her passion for early childhood education grew out of her experience as a pre-school teacher at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School. Elissa loves hiking, running, tennis, yoga, cute workout clothes, good cheese, great baked goods and exploring Denver!   Twitter: @ElissaINYW

Elissa Sungar
Author: Elissa Sungar

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  1. Fantastic ideas. In fact, I think we’re going to try the old newspapers today.

  2. We love making Cut Out Stick Puppets out of newspapers. Children cut out pictures of people or animals from the magazines. Attach each “character” to ice-cream or craft sticks. Kids have to prepare a dialog, monologue or play with the stick puppets.

    Pictures can be cut out based on a fairy story that the children know. This makes it easier for them to create the presentation if they are not yet able to produce a story of their own.

    A real event is chosen as a basis for their character search. The story can be based on something that has happened in their lives, for example, a birthday party in the family.

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