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Top 12 Recycled Items in the Classroom

All Classroom Teachers Need to Keep on Hand!

Ok, so I have a confession. As a teacher I was a hoarder. To be honest I still probably save more than I should. However, in 2015, after having to clean out my Father In laws house, who was also an extreme hoarder, I tried to change my ways. My teacher ways still haunt me now and then.

As a teacher though I feel like one of our Super Powers is upcycling. If you do not know what that is, it is when you take something old or garbage and turn it into a new wonderful treasure. As teachers we turn trash into treasures all the time, when we make projects with recycled items.

While I was teaching, I found that I dedicated a good portion of my closet to craft supplies. Of those craft supplies, about 80 percent were recycled items that I collected. I would even ask my congregation and the other teachers to help donate to my collections.

I thought it would be fun to compile a go to list of recycled items that early childhood teachers should keep on hand. I feel if you teach art in any way, even to your own kids, these are items you should have on hand. Many projects use these items.

Here are my top 12 upcycled items:

  1. Toilet paper tubes
  2. Egg cartons
  3. Paper bags
  4. Oatmeal containers
  5. Kleenex boxes
  6. Plastic covers (all sizes)
  7. Yogurt containers
  8. Gloves
  9. Cereal boxes
  10. Old kitchen utensils
  11. Milk caps
  12. Ice cream buckets

Endless Possibilities!

Toilet Paper Tubes:

I use toilet paper tubes for puppets, candles for Christmas decorations (especially advent wreaths for the kids), cars for transportation, train cars for transportation units, logs for a pond or frog unit, and even parts to a castle that the kids create. You can also use them as beads and decorations. The most recent thing I’ve seen is the Thing one and Thing two project. Another great project that I use toilet paper tubes for is creating your own sidewalk chalk.

Egg Cartons

Egg Cartons are one of those things that you can almost find endless possibilities for. One of my favorites in my classroom is for Resurrection Eggs. Resurrection eggs are an ongoing project that I do over 12 days with my students in which they put specific items for different parts of the Lenten journey into Easter Eggs, and then they put the egg into the egg carton to store. Then they can reuse them to tell the Easter Story every year.

Another way I like to use egg cartons, is to use them to store stickers or store small erasers for various units. I also always keep a few empty ones. The empty ones I use with my students if we do a unit that I do have sorters and counters for, because then they can use the egg cartons to sort the erasers. (old muffin tins also work for this)

Egg Carton Igloos. I found this on Facebook one day, and honestly I’m not sure where it came from, but it was genius. Instead of a gallon jug egg carton, which can be smelly if the jugs aren’t washed appropriately, they used egg cartons. It took a ton, but it looked awesome, and I could so see kids getting a kick out of building an igloo with egg cartons.

This is from South East Elementary School

I also use egg cartons for projects. For instance Yertle the Turtles, or lady bugs, or caterpillars. Caterpillars are the most famous of all egg carton projects, but almost any bug can be made out of egg cartons.

Finally, egg cartons can be great planters if you do not get the Styrofoam ones. You need the paper ones for this particular use. The paper ones are biodegradable. I have the students put dirt in each of the egg cups, and then I have them plant a seed. After they have sprouted, you can plant it directly in the ground in the cup. You will need to keep a pan under it because the cartons get wet on the bottom, and might leek slightly, however, I find this is a small price to pay for the awesome recycling example.

Paper Bags

Small Paper Bags:

  1. Puppets- you can literally make almost any puppet using a paper bag. The other day we made walrus puppets for my polar animal unit.
  2. Smelly Bag- Doing a unit on the senses. Place one smelly item in each bag, and have the kids take turns guessing what is inside. They can’t see through so it is a great use for them.
  3. Books- There are many teachers now that are turning paper bags into books with their students. There are a few fancier way to make the books. The simplest way, is to use staples, but I find that the bags can be a little thick, unless you only use like two bags. I do recommend this website Premeditated Leftovers. She has an awesome way to make paper bag books, that I think even the kids could be more hands on in creating. One way I liked to use the paper bag books, is to use them for alphabet books. Have them find pictures in magazines and glue them in, or even create inserts that can then be placed in the pockets of your paper bag book. If you have older kids, you could do the same thin, but make it a color book, or a sight word book, or a math concept book. Another idea would be to turn it into a science journal.

Big Paper Bags

  1. Make Costumes. Rachel Campbell Maher has an awesome video on you tube that is super simple to make these vests. I used them for a thanksgiving unit or native american unit, a safari unit, or simply for a community helpers unit. They can design their vests to fit pretty much any unit you desire. Also if you tell grocery stores what you are using them for you might even get enough for free from them. Otherwise, talk to parents in advance, and usually it is pretty easy to get enough pretty quickly.
Top 12 Upcycled Items in a Classroom- Paper bag vests.

2. Paper Bag Turkeys- I use this almost everything thanksgiving. I use a large paper bag to create the body of the turkey. Then I use small paper bags to create the legs. Then I use bean bags or pom pom balls to be the stuffing and the kids have to toss the bean bags or pom poms into the turkey.

3. Book Covers- This is an oldy but a goody. I remember being in the first grade and making paper bag book covers to protect my books during the school year. The best part was being able to decorate each book so that we can know which one it is. Staples has an awesome you tube video on how to create old fashioned book covers.

A Top 12 Recycled Classroom Item- A very simple video on how to make paper bag book covers.

Oatmeal Containers/ Coffee Containers

  1. Storage for long things such as rhythm sticks, pipe cleaners, Popsicle sticks, paint brushes, etc.
  2. Building castles in the block area
  3. Tossing games- Cat in the hat toss: Paint the Oatmeal container to look like a cat in the hat hat, or a snowman hat, add a paper plate rim to complete the look, then practice throwing Pom Poms or Bean bags in.
  4. Use as a drum
  5. Dramatic Play area
  6. Stilts- Get two, turn up side down, and attach strings. You know have ready made stilts.

Kleenex Boxes

  1. My number one way I love to use Kleenex boxes is to make them into creatures that the kids can pretend to feed, whether it be a monster, a frog, or a dog.
  2. Storing Tissue Paper. Especially if you have enough that you could have one color per box.
  3. For the blocks area- it is amazing what kids think are fun to build with. Sometimes, the simpler items make the best building items.
  4. Trim off the tops, and I use them to store stickers. They are just wide enough most sticker sheets fit perfectly side ways and then create and easy grab and go storage idea.

Plastic Covers

  1. Paint holders- I love these for holding tempera paint. I can wash and reuse a ton of times, and if they get wrecked, I don’t care.
  2. Spinners- A plastic cover, a loosely placed brass fastener, and a paper clip, makes an awesome spinner.
  3. Wheels- If you have any units(transportation) where you make cars, or buses or trains out of boxes, those plastic covers make awesome wheels.
  4. Place markers in the gym
  5. Memory game pieces for the smaller covers.
  6. Clock faces- if you are teaching about time.
  7. Tracers for the shape circles

Yogurt Containers

  1. Building Towers
  2. Water cups for painting
  3. tracers for circles
  4. storage of glitter or other small pieces(tissue paper squares)
  5. marble paint swirler. I have so many projects that are made simply by dipping a marble in paint, dropping the marble into a box that has a shape or picture in it, and then shaking the box until the painted marble colors the picture. I use the yogurt cups to make sure that I use as much of the paint as possible, fingers stay a little cleaner, and you can keep reusing it for each student.


  1. Cleaning toys- so your hands don’t dry out in all that bleach water.
  2. Udders- Mix white paint and water to create a thinner paint, that resembles milk. Pour that into a plastic glove, tie off with a rubber band, really tight. Finally, poke a few holes in the fingers of the gloves to make udders, for a farm or cow unit.
  3. High Five Balloons- When I do a number 5 unit, I make high five balloons, out of gloves. No I don’t use helium. But I blow them up so that they look like high five hands on our last day of class as something just fun.
  4. Finger nail painting- Fill gloves with sand, tie off the glove. Then allow them to paint the “nails” with tempera paint. The best part, if you wash it off soon enough, you can reuse again and again, for about a week.

Cereal Boxes

  1. Mailboxes- You can stack them up on a book shelf and attache their names so that their names hang down, and you have mailboxes. I learned this from my first grade teacher who did this.
  2. Mailboxes for Valentines- It could also be a one time use, for a Valentine’s mail box. That way all the valentines will fit, and it would be an easy activity to have the kids decorate them as a project.
  3. Organizing paper for your classroom
  4. Puzzles-I use the covers of the cereal boxes as puzzles. This makes for environmental print, and math standards.

Old Kitchen Utensils

  1. Stamps on paper, potato mashers especially are fun prints
  2. Strainers- for the sand box to strain out items
  3. Bubbles- often potato mashers, slotted spoons, whisks, and a whole lot more make awesome bubbles. You just have to be creative and try.
  4. Dramatic play additions
  5. Play dough- rolling pins, potato mashers, cookie cutters, and other things all make awesome play dough center additions.
  6. Cover holders- awesome paper holders

Milk Caps

  1. Wheels- toilet paper tube cars
  2. Buttons for a Cardboard box paper airplane
  3. Memory tiles- I put stickers on the inside of the milk caps, and then we flip them all over, and then try to match the correct sticker caps.
  4. sorters for colors
  5. Lady bug projects
  6. Counters
  7. Word formation- Put letters on all the milk caps then they can put the letters in order to spell their names, or site words, or spelling words for older kids
  8. Stampers
  9. Flower Petals- If you have enough you can choose a color and create fun flower art, using the covers as petals.

Ice Cream Buckets

  1. Storage- Ice cream buckets make for great storage for varying units. If you use a little contact paper or spray paint you can decorate them to fit any style classroom. The also have those wonderful handles which make it easy for little hands to carry it wherever they need it.
  2. Storage for teachers- It is a great way to organize your units. I usually have a file folder for each unit, and then an ice cream bucket for all the little pieces.
  3. Drums- These also make great drums.
  4. Fine Motor- If you punch holes in the top of the cover and then give it to little kids and have them stick pipe cleaners in the holes. If you add a face to the bucket you could say they are adding hair.
  5. Feeding- This is another great tool if you are making feeding games. An example, I put a picture of a dog on top of the covers, (use hot glue: it works the best) and then I cut a hole for the mouth. This made a great game in which they would roll the dice, and count out that many scooby snacks to give the “dog”. Then when the game is all done, if you have non-perishable pieces you can store the whole thing in the container in the closet for quick and easy clean up.

Those are my top 12 recycled items. By no means are those all I re-use and recycle. Those are the ones I use the most. Other items that I found useful, are clear bottles, water, soda, and body wash containers. They make great sensory bottles. There are so many fun things to recycle, you just have to keep your eyes and imagination open for new and wonderful ideas. I hope this helps all of us teachers know what are items to definitely keep room for, and which items you MIGHT be able to get rid of. I also hope it opens your eyes to the possibilities up cycling those items in your classroom.

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