trash to treasure

How to make a recycled Sculpture with kids

What you see here is one of the most successful art projects that’s hit our household thus far. And it was free! What was the allure?

  • Working on a large scale
  • Low heat Glue Gun.
  • Piles of imagination-building materials
  • Collecting objects
  • Autonomy with decision-making
  • A novel project.

Supplies for Recycled Sculpture

  • Recyclables
  • Low-heat glue gun. We use the Cool Shot — it’s fantastic for little kids and we haven’t had an incident yet. Be sure to get a few packages of extra glue sticks too.
  • Paint (optional). We used washable tempera, which is great for enjoying the process, but will not last over time (it flakes off). For paint with a more permanent bond, use acrylic paint.
  • Paintbrushes (optional). These brushes from Melissa and Doug are nice for preschoolers.

painting chip board

It all began when we unearthed these very cool cardboard pieces that protected our new ice-cream maker (mmmm, thank you again danielle and dave!). So we decided to paint them. This carried on for a few minutes and then we moved on while they dried.

Collect some Recyclables

Recycled Sculpture

Later on, we started an art-recycling bag full of more materials to paint. But the pile kept growing and growing until I guess the materials were suggestive of a new idea altogether…

Stack and Build a Sculpture


Building!! It quickly became a challenge to balance the boxes, tubes, and bottles without toppling it all over.

really tall

Making it really, really tall. You can see the painted ice cream box piece way up there. And then the fun part…


I bet you saw that coming 🙂

glue it there

And then, finally, we glued pieces together to make a more permanent sculpture.

Glue Gun Tips for Kids

This is where you get the low-heat glue gun out and share a few tips on safe handling:

  • Don’t touch the tip of the glue gun
  • Don’t touch the hot glue right after it comes out of the gun.

Attach the sculptural pieces together

The learning opportunities were so rich: we talked about sculpture as dimensional art, learned about how a glue gun works, made compositional choices, and embraced decision-making skills through the selection of objects.

Although I used a low-heat glue gun (these are amazing for kids), I still manned the gun and N told me where to glue. It was great! She would select a piece and then decide where she wanted it. There were a few moments where we collaborated to discuss placement, but she was mostly in charge. You can see her pointing to where she wants that toilet paper roll glued down.

Recycled Sculpture

In fits of inspiration, she bolted in and out of the room to find more treasures for her sculptures. I especially like that red ribbon. Don’t you? Oh, and if anyone ever wondered what we eat in our house, wonder no more!

Recycled Sculpture

We made three of these sculptures that afternoon, and got very good at working with the variegated materials. Throughout the week, N collected sticks and other natural materials during our walks and would say, “Let’s take it home to make art with it!” I love this kid!

How do you or your family like to use recycled materials? Feel free to add a link or photo in the comments section!


  1. wow. fabulous!!!!!I love it. you know I’m taking this inspiration and running with it!!!

    • i can’t wait to see what you and simone (and maybe spencer?) come up with!

  2. OOOhh! Love it! I’ve been itching to encourage something like this myself, as we’ve rounded up quite a large bin of reusable items. On our next warm day this week, I’ll have to pull it out in the yard and get my little guy started!

    • it’ll make you look at your trash — reusable items 🙂 — in a whole new way!

  3. I love it!
    We have been doing a lot of that lately and it has inspired my oldest to really get creative! We are out of the country right now so reusable items are about all we have. Thanks for sharing all your wonderful ideas!

    • “Non-art” objects can be interpreted in so many ways, making them rich for building critical and creative thinking skills. I love having paint, chalk, markers, etc. around the house, but working with found objects and non-art materials also help children understand that ANYTHING can be a material for making. And what a great lesson that is!

  4. Wonderful idea and terrific photos. But it leads me to a question: what do you do with the final artworks when you and N have moved on to the next fun thing? The size of this featured work is part of its charm, but also a challenge. Teachable moment?

    • I’m interested to hear this too – my daughter is suddenly attached to every little piece of art she creates. We used to put things in the “snipping” pile (a box of scraps and recycled art that she has free reign over with her scissors) but now she says “I want this one to be mine forever.”

      I’ve just been putting stuff behind her easel because I do want to respect that, but I’m thinking we’ll “review” these works of art in a week or two and see if her opinion has changed.

      Larger pieces certainly create their own challenges!

    • Great question! I’m not qualified to share a generalizable response, as N wasn’t very attached to the final product. She loved making these, enjoyed sharing them with Dad when he came home, intentionally knocked one of them over, and and didn’t seem to notice when most of the pieces found their way back into our recycling bins the next day. She’s very much about process over product, and I can’t think of one piece of art that she covets after a day or two have passed since making it. I kept one sculpture around for a week, and when it began to blend with the walls, it joined its friends outside.

  5. We’ve been saving up our #6 plastics to use in lieu of Shrinky Dinks. Apparently it works with Sharpies, and – bonus – it is clear, so you can trace onto it!

    • I’ve heard about that! Do let me know how it works for you.

  6. I really like to use recycling stuff. And I’m eager to do that kind of sculpture with my toddler. I think he is not in that kind of stuff yet.

    When I was teaching art, my students made music instruments with ” papier mache” on top with recycling stuff. I think it was one of the project that they enjoyed most.

    I really like you blog by the way !

    • Thanks so much! Papier mache was always a favorite project with my students too.

    • Thanks Valerie! I feel the same way about your blog 🙂

  7. Very cool project – and it looks like a lot of fun was had. I want to try this with my girls.

    We made this scarecrow 2 years ago out of all recycled materials. She still sits in our garden and is still one of my very favorite projects. My girls often visit with her and have a chat.


    Hi to your N and thank you for your kind words. My N was VERY excited to see another N!

    • Helen! Thanks for sharing the link. I love your sweet scarecrow (did the crows make friends with it, I wonder?) and I bet we’d have fun making one of these. I’ll start collecting materials so that we’ll be ready once the rain passes.

  8. This activity is so creative and playful yet full of learning opportunities. I love it when even such mundane things at home become amazing objects for play and learning. I love your efforts as a creative and thinking mamma! 🙂
    Pls visit my site when you have time. 🙂
    Greetings from India.

    • Hi Rashmie, I just started poking around your site, and it’s fantastic! It’s fun to see how a child can be raised to think creatively in a country other than ours — it’s all the same, yet slightly different. I can’t wait until we have time to make some banana chat! Oh, and I saw that you made pasta necklaces. Feel free to share a link to the post here if you’d like: https://tinkerlab.com/2011/01/creative-experiment-2-pasta/

  9. I love this activity. Before I was a mom, I was a teacher of gifted kids. I did this type of thing many times. I honestly believe this is one of the most creative activities you can do with kids. You take something mundane and let them make something fun and creative and adventurous out of it. They use all their creative energies and thinking skills and they have a great time in the process. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our days were always like that? This is a wonderful activity!

    You can also add found objects, like pine cones and rocks, etc, to the mix. Anything at all! There is no end to it.

    And it challenges kids, sometimes, to think way out of the box. Many kids cannot do this at all because they have been led through activities their whole lives. They have no experience creating on their own. They NEED to do stuff like this!

    • Hi Kathy! You have no idea how much your thoughts mean to me! I agree with your point that many kids “have been led through activities their whole lives”, and that they’re in desperate need of authentic challenges that are intrinsically motivated (and without adult directives). Activities like this help children develop their own understandings of the world, set up challenges for themselves, and then work on problem-solving skills. Thanks for sharing!

      • Yes! Exactly. My experience with gifted kids is that most of them are completely hampered by their inability to think for themselves. I also think most Americans lack problem solving and critical thinking skills, that that is fodder for a much longer thread.

        Suffice to say that open-ended activities like this do a lot for children’s intellectual and creative development.

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