quick trick: how to use recyclables with kids–get fun, crafty, creative

With summer right around the corner and kids home a lot more than usual, many of us need to keep a few tricks in our back pocket for rainy days or those occasions when we feel like we might lose our minds.

This Quick Trick is certainly a keeper; it’s all about what kinds of recyclables parents should keep–and how they can use them with their kids–for unusual, free, earth-friendly fun.

Many of my friends have said, Seriously, Amy, why didn’t I think of saving those yogurt cups? or Smart idea to use those play-doh containers for sand toys–who cares if you lose one, right? And I’m totally not sharing this to toot my own horn; I’m sharing it because these are things we all can do–things we all can save and bring back to life in new and exciting ways for our kids.

I grew up with an extremely creative and resourceful mom–she kept things most people didn’t keep and taught us to use them in cool, new ways. We played with buttons, ribbons, material, and boxes like they were million dollar toys. Don’t get me wrong; we had Cabbage Patch Kids and Barbies and Legos, but sometimes, the ‘untoys’ were just as cool.

So here are the things you should consider keeping instead of immediately throwing into the recycling bin, starting now.

And if you are interested in having this in one happy, printable list, either print the post or scroll to the end.

  • Lids: Any and all lids, from milk cartons to juice containers, from peanut butter jars to fluff containers.
  • Why: They live a double life–no joking. They start out as lids and then morph into toys and learning games. Use them for:
  1. Sorting: by colors, shapes, sizes, textures. Throw pieces of colored construction paper on the floor and help your little one match the colored lids to the correct color paper.
  2. Throwing: experiment with gross motor practice (in a safe environment). Use some bowls or plates as targets, and see how many make it to the designated point.
  3. Playing math games: assign bowls, cups, and containers point values, put initials inside the lids, and keep score!
  4. Letter games and word building: with a few alphabet stickers stuck on (or written on with a permanent marker) these little lids spells F-U-N.
  5. Building: throw a pile on the table or floor and challenge your kids to create. They will.


Kids can build words with letter lids. . .

. . . or just build sculptures with them.

  • Play-doh Containers: If you buy the stuff in the yellow containers, keep them.
  • Why: Kids not only love cleaning them in a big, soapy celebration on a hot summer day, but these things are perfect for:
  1. Using in the sand or dirt: who cares if you lose them or if another family takes them home?
  2. Holding beads, sequins, stickers-anything small: use chopsticks or tongs to move objects from one place to another for fine motor practice. Have kids move pom-poms, beads, buttons, cottonballs, whatever.
  3. Taking them to the pool: throw these pups into your pool bag for baby pool especially–because, again, you won’t care if you lose them, and it will boggle your mind how kids will reach for them.


Clean the play-doh containers and save the lids–add them to your lid collection!


  • Yogurt Containers: Any size, but we love the small Yoplait and Danonino ones
  • Why: Run them through the dishwasher, and the possibilities for these guys are endless:
  1. Snack holders: perfect for tiny hands, stacking together, throwing in a ziplock, and dishing out at park playdates.
  2. Stackables, pyramid-builders: how many can your kids stack up and how sturdy can they make a pyramid on the kitchen floor?
  3. Counting games: throw numbers on the bottom, mix them up, and have kids put them in order!
  4. Spelling, and letter games: same as with numbers, but add letters!
  5. Tissue paper flower vases: when you want to make flowers that last forever, you can make a little something pretty with them.


Yogurt cup counting games

Who knew fruit containers could become so darn pretty?

  • Apple sauce or mixed fruit containers: Love these.
  • Why: Use them for:
  1. Water dishes for painting or crafting: they hold up remarkably well, and everyone knows when it’s time to change the water.
  2. Shakers: add some tiny beads, some ribbon, and stick two together for a shakin’ good time.
  3. Pretend play: add these to your play kitchen as bowls for kids or pets!

Don’t be afraid–these helped us talk about emotions!

  • Paper rolls: Paper towel rolls, toilet paper rolls, any rolls will do
  • Why: Use them for fun, crafty, unusual ways:
  1. Making family dolls: print out pictures or glue old ones onto a paper roll and have a few good laughs
  2. Talking about emotions with kids: same as above but make sure the photos show different emotions–happy, angry, sad, surprised–and do some role-playing, talking about emotions and how to handle them
  3. Target practice: (thanks to my pal, MaryLea of Pink and Green Mama) decorate some rolls, then set them up outside and squirt away!!
  4. Print making: (again, thanks to MaryLea) cut rolls into about 4-5 pieces, fold into different shapes (think diamond, clover, flower petal, etc) dip in paint, and print!


Kids have to be so careful with them when they’re full that they love to have egg cartons as playthings. . .

  • Egg cartons: Keep them, keep them, keep them! Kids love these!
  • Why: With the tiny little compartments already built in, these are great for sorting, playing, cutting, and combining.
  1. Color sorting: you know we love any excuse to play with candy over here, so this combined candy, colors, and chopsticks and let the kids move candy from one bowl to designated compartments inside an egg carton.
  2. Tiny things holder: Cora loves to cut paper and store the pieces inside, in different compartments



Color Hunts are more fun with recycled jars to keep colors separate.

  • Jars: From pickles, rice, peppers, baby food, whatever, whether glass or plastic, jars can–and have–been re-used for years.
  • Why: Have kids clean them out in soapy water, and let them start collecting!
  1. Outside color hunt: (or inside, if you choose!)  Label each jar a different color and hunt for items outside to put into each jar.  Perfect for a cooler day or one that’s rainy and grey–just bring in inside.
  2. Spend, Save, and Give jars: to teach your kiddos smart money sense and have them put aside a certain percent of their money in each jar–maybe 60% save; 30% spend; 10% give?
  3. Gem Jars: play on positive behavior and try something new.  Award kiddos a ‘gem’ for each awesome behavior caught by you!  When gem jars are full, it’s time for a small celebration or reward.

Once, a coffee can. Now, a park explorer kit. . .

  • Coffee Cans: plastic or tin, keep these for sure.
  • Why: They’re big, sturdy, and they’ve got tight-fitting lids. Just make sure to clean them thoroughly so that kids don’t complain about coffee smell.
  1. Coffee-can stilts: poke holes through the bottom of the can and tie strong yarn or string through, making sure it reaches hands. Then–with support and watchful eyes–let your kids try to walk! (Gulp.)
  2. Park explorer kits: soon to be shared on PBS Parents, essentially this is an all-in-one park explorer kit that fits happily inside a coffee can.



a cardboard box, or a sensory box?!

  • Cardboard Box: In any size, these are more fun than you’d expect for kids of almost any age.
  • Why: Either with some prompting and focus, or just with free play, boxes can be houses, cars, games, or learning materials.
  1. Sensory Box: one of my kids’ favorite guessing games, playing with senses.  Players take turns hiding an object in the box and having their friend guess what’s inside, using only their sense of touch.
  2. Shoelace Box: teach little ones to tie shoes or even to braid using a cardboard shoe box (and check out the linky below the shoelace box post to read 50 other ways of using cardboard boxes for learning and play!


oh, the fun to be had with a lonely sock

A few other things to think about before you toss them:

  • Kid plates: we love these as divided craft palates, as holders for paint and/or water, or for bead sorting.
  • Bottle caps: for ornaments, for bingo markers, for pretty ornaments or bookmarks.
  • Tiny tins: from mints, sweets, or gum, these are great to keep. Who knows when your kids will ask to go on a teeny, tiny hunt?
  • Toothbrushes: yes, for making painting CRA-ZY fun! Draw a big, ole mouth and have kids paint really clean teeth–or really dirty teeth.
  • Milk cartons: the gallon ones, to make bird feeders, of course.
  • Paint swatches: from the paint store, from the days of trying desperately to figure out the best color for your playroom.  I used cardstock in this activity with paperclips, but use paint swatches!

Want a list of Recyclables: What to Keep and Why to hang on your fridge? It’s here to download as a pdf. Woot!

What recyclables does your family keep and how do you use them?

Let’s make this Quick Trick everyone’s Quick Trick and share your ways of using recyclables for games, crafts, and learning.  Take a sec to leave a comment here or link back to one of your recycled-item posts!





  1. says

    And teeny tiny tins from breath mints make a great place to hold some small treasures to take to a restaurant. I bring them filled with fun buttons, and it makes going to the restaurant much better!

  2. says

    What a fantastic list in preparation for summer! We’re definitely going to share this with our readers on Facebook and Twitter – they’re going to love all these ideas for their children/students. Thank you for putting this together!

    • amy says

      you are so welcome–thanks for your kind words, and I totally appreciate you sharing the link, my friend!

  3. Bridget says

    Love this list! People look at me a little strangely when I say I love summer and just hanging out with my kids at home. Your site is part of the reason why. So appreciate you sharing all these wonderfully creative ideas!! Thank you!!

    • amy says

      Bridget! You are so kind–thanks so much for sharing this! It IS fun to hang w/ your kids at home, especially when there are so many cool things to do with them!

  4. says

    We keep everything, but now I have a problem with storage space! My three kids like when I take out the recycled box and they can just create. They make robots, animals, all kinds of things. But all the yogurt cups, etc. do add up–I’m now up to four bins full of supplies!

    • amy says

      OH my goodness!! I know what you mean–it does take up space to save–for sure. Perhaps fodder for another post between us–‘where/ how to store craft supplies’ !

  5. says

    Such a brilliant idea – thank you Amy :) I’m very lucky to have such a patient husband who puts up with our huge collection of recycled goodies. We’re BIG fans of upcycling at our house! :)

    • amy says

      Hooray, Catherine! You are way too kind to call the idea ‘brilliant’ but I’ll totally take it! And three cheers for patient husbands of crafty mamas!

  6. Amanda says

    As a preschool teacher and mom I totally get what you are saying about storage problems. I just recently sold my hubby’s pool table to convert that room
    Into our family room and our old family room into the play room/teaching stuff room. But I had a similar storage problem. What I did was went to IKEA and bought a 16 cube shelving unit for around $120.00- not a bad price for the size and quality of this piece of furniture!! Then over a couple months time I used ten dollars from each pay check to buy 4 fitting plastic lidded containers from walmart that fit (2) perfectly in each cubby. It cost $40.00 total, but not bad when spread out over 4 pay checks 😉 Lastly, I put all the home made art supplies and projects in each tote and labeled them with my label maker. Not only is everything visible and organized, but the shelving unit fits perfectly in a small space, and it was all affordable in the end. I love it! And now nothing hinders me from making art projects or saving supplies : D hope this idea helps! Or maybe it will spark a different solution :)

    • amy says

      AMANDA!! SO helpful! Thank you a million times for the response and ideas, my friend! Every little thing helps!!

  7. Holly says

    Thanks for all of the fun ideas for recyclables! These fun activities will definitely keep my kiddos entertained this summer!

  8. says

    This is a great list and definitely helps me justify my ever-growing pile of reusables. When my MIL came over just after my daughter was born I expected her to help me clean up but every time I tried to throw something away she’d say, “Kim, you know if you throw that out you’ll find a use for it the next day!” Best MIL EVER.

    The can thing reminds me of this video: http://youtu.be/aMrrboe1l9U “A can can do anything you want it to. A can can be anything your mind can see!”

    Thanks! :)

    • amy says

      Kimberly! LOVE the video–thanks for sharing, my friend, and I love your MIL’s advice. So true. As long as you have room to save everything, right? Cheers!

  9. Sharon says

    I save lids, plastic snack cups and bottles and egg cartons, too. Also broken necklaces and jewelry is re-used for other creations. I save the styrofoam trays that ground turkey or beef comes in, too. I had my kids start their summer gardens in them – one tray gets many holes poked in it for drainage and another one underneath to catch the water. They were just the right size for watering and waiting for the seeds to sprout. I also just saw a cool use for the flip-top part of baby wipe packages over at http://www.filthwizardry.com/2011/06/open-ended-sculpture-fun-with-glue-and.html. (second picture from the bottom) Those things make great doors and windows for popsicle stick buildings.

  10. Aruna says

    Dear Amy,
    You’re such a wonderful mother. Your children are v.lucky. I used to be a sort of such mother, when my elder daughter was a kindergartener. Now, she’s grown up and I am not my old self when my youngerone is growing. Your website rekindles the old self within me and I’m excited to return to my old self. Thank You.

  11. says

    I love this love this love this. Funds are always tight, and kids don’t need NEW things all the time, and it is great for the Earth.

    Plus you have given me about 8 years worth of ideas for play. Thank you!!

    • amy says

      thank you so much, my friend. Can’t tell you how much I appreciate you reading and taking the time to write. Happiest 2012 to you!

  12. Elizabeth says

    I love your ideas! I am a preschool teacher and I love to use recycled things in my classroom as often as I can. It not only helps the environment, but my wallet too. I really wanted a sound matching game for my room, but I had no money to buy it. I used old play dough containers to create a whole set. I filled them with other materials I would have normally had no use for. The kids love listening for matching sounds.

    • amy says

      Elizabeth! HUGE thanks, my friend! Please let me know if you have other ideas–I’d love to hear them or have you share them over here!! Best of luck to you, and many thanks for reading and writing today!!

  13. Carolyn says

    Hi, thank you for posting all these wonderful ideas. Someone in one of the homeschool co-ops I belong to shared your link which is how I found you. Thank you for your generous spirit in sharing these with everyone. I wanted to also mention that straws (that you buy or get from a restaurant when you order a drink) are fun to do things with, to thread with string, or tie together or stick one end into the end of another. Also for bubble blowing. Sometimes it works 😉 Also, I think the orange mesh bag that comes when you buy a bag of oranges or tangerines has a lot of potential… for “sewing” with a big plastic needle and yarn, to make a neat stamp print, or the bag could be reused to corral bath toys? I also like the little green plastic mesh containers that tomatoes or other vegetables come in. I like my twist-top hard plastic container that my vegan boullion comes in, but not sure how to get rid of the boullion smell. I like it but my son doesn’t, lol. I also like empty pringles containers and empty oatmeal containers to hold things. EMpty starbuck cups and lids are great for taking to the park to store park-finds to bring home and look at under the microscope.

    • amy says

      You are so kind; I can’t tell you how much your sweet words have brightened my day! And I cannot–absolutely cannot–wait to try out your earth-happy ideas!! Cheers!


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