child with cork glasses

Getting Started with Creative Reuse Materials

Lets dig in our recycling bin! “Oo, there’s a bunch of bottle lids in here, grab those.” “Oh, and that cereal box is good”. “I bet we can make a car.” “No, I want to make a rocket.” “These twist ties will make great arms for my cork person.” “I can’t wait to get making.”

Creative reuse is the perfect stay-at-home maker activity. You start by collecting a big box of recyclables, broken toys, incomplete game sets, and other items that were destined for the trash heap. These become the seeds of your home makerspace, the materials that will inspire you, your go-to when making a new project. Collect anything! Be sure everything you put in your Creative Reuse Materials Box is clean, free of sharp edges, and safe to touch and manipulate.

There are a million guides out there on how to creatively reuse a toilet paper tube or wood pallet, but the real power of creative reuse isn’t the “reuse,” it’s the “creative.” Think of creative reuse materials as a bridge between toys, with their narrow play pathways, and the unlimited possibilities an experienced maker can see in raw materials. It’s fine to follow an Instructable or project guide if you are stuck for ideas, but that’s only a small part of creative reuse. There are other ways to get unstuck that are more fun and more educational. Engineers and artists love design constraints, which often yield the most creative solutions. Working with the idiosyncratic materials that happen to be in your Creative Reuse Materials Box is a perfect way to explore new ideas, playfully tinker with objects, and develop projects that are internally guided.

A few tips:

  • For STEAM projects, think about structure, strength, and motion. Collect a variety of shapes: rods (chopsticks, skewers, straws), circles (jar lids, plastic bottles), sheet stock (cardboard, paperboard, plastic boxes). Think about materials that move in interesting ways like rubber bands and twist ties. Consider scavenging useful bits from worn or broken items, like cutting apart old shoes to get at the rubber sole, or turning DVD cases into hinges. Remember, the Technology of STEAM isn’t just screens and robots. Technology is any object used to extend human capability. Look at the objects in your Creative Reuse Materials Box and think about the many things each can do to extend your capabilities with their unique material and mechanical properties.
  • Talk with your kids about safety when working with tools. Review that they are using cutting tools correctly, even when excitedly brainstorming and busily making.  Materials, particularly metal and plastic, may have hidden hazards like a jagged edge in a tin can or cheap lead-based solder inside a motorized toy. Examine new creative reuse materials together, and guide kids to cultivate their own instincts on evaluating unfamiliar objects.
  • Stuck for ideas? Start with arranging and rearranging objects on a tray in a series of quick challenges. Make a face. Make a dinosaur. Display a pattern. Tell a joke in five items or less. Get to know your materials and their attributes. Take a look at one object and describe it in as many categories you can think of: shape, size, texture, sound, weight, ductility, friction, etc.
  • Be ready to try new things that don’t work the first time (or ever). Because you are working with materials that were already on the way out the door, there’s no problem if you break something while testing its flexibility or strength, cut pieces for a project that doesn’t come together, or just spend all day playing around without a particular goal in mind. Creative reuse play is joyful. It practices creative skills useful for all STEAM endeavors. The costs of failure are low, so the leaps to crazy untested fantastic new ideas can come fast and furious.

Barb Makes Things: wind sculpture out of recycled materials

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