Turning Trash into Treasure for Young Children

By Adam Buckingham. Auckland, New Zealand 2011

Adam Buckingham shares ideas on what can be incorporated from waste materials, and the home environment, to inspire young children’s learning in an early childhood centre.

Sustainability is an important issue within the community and the education sector. I enjoy finding creative ways to reuse waste. The innovative equipment I have designed and made for young children is predominantly made from waste materials. It is about transforming someone else’s rubbish into learning experiences for young children. This is meaningful both to the children and their communities. The project has linked people from the wider community to the early childhood environment, knowing they are contributing their waste to be transformed into something useful. The equipment provides an opportunity for young children to manipulate and explore real world objects. Items are incorporated from the home environment and the wider world – to inspire and enrich young children’s learning.

Play, curiosity and wonder

As young scientists and engineers come together to dismantle a lawnmower engine, they are talking excitedly, using real tools to do a real job, putting themselves firmly in the role of competent and fully engaged learner. This seemingly simple play creates a valuable vehicle for social and physical development, language acquisition and self expression, a sense of accomplishment and high self esteem, and rewards the life skills of curiosity and wonder.

Young actors and playwrights create fantasy worlds revolving around real life props like steering wheels, padlocks, switches, knobs and chains. These wonderful assemblages provide opportunities for open ended cooperative play, involve little or no financial outlay, are a great way for fathers and extended whānau to contribute in a way in which they feel comfortable, and are a very real example for children of materials being given a new life through recycling.

A spin off from this work has been the involvement of parents, and in particular it has encouraged a rapport with men. Through helping to obtain resources or make equipment fathers engage with the centre, and these kinds of activities make early childhood education and care more attractive for male professionals.

Concrete tips to make one man’s rubbish another man’s treasure

  • Have fun sourcing the materials and getting people on board to help.
  • Improvise with the materials, observe how children use them and then adapt your ideas.
  • Display resources in an orderly manner and make it look inviting for children to explore – keep it simple.
  • Please remember to give children the time and freedom to explore, discover, manipulate and practice how real objects work.
  • Think about things such as the physical space, location, organisation, storage and maintenance of equipment.
  • And use the correct names for all objects.

The steel case of a discarded top loading washing machine provides an ideal wall against which to attach magnets. Manipulating the magnets is another opportunity for children to develop their fine motor skills. Using familiar objects provides a link between the centre and home environment. I have cut the case in half, horizontally, using an angle grinder, and placed a wooden top on it to make a table at child’s height, so that this fully utilises the available space. It can also be used for magnetic stories.

Where can children play with springs? When using the ‘rods’ children have an opportunity to manipulate springs in ways they would not normally be able to. In this equipment four steel rods (from a washing machine) stand vertically in a wooden timber frame. Each rod contains an increasing number of objects with a hole, such as tap washers, nuts, rings, hair ties and springs. The children enjoy sliding the springs up the rods, then watching them fall and bounce up and down. The timber frame is made from off-cuts and all the objects were diverted from landfill.

The trainer wheels of the old bike are up on blocks, with the back wheel over a container of water. There is another block of wood behind the front wheel to keep the bike in place. For safety the children need to wear shoes and stay away from all moving parts. I draw a line around the back of the bike, and the rules are: ‘stay behind the line’ and ‘no touching the wheel’. This activity needs to be supervised. Hold up a separate chain and cog so you can show the children how it moves, and so they can feel the chain. You can add colour with dye and detergent in the water, to highlight the movement of water. In the right light you can see cool little rainbows on sunny days.
Note: the bike does not have a mudguard. Another object to use for this type of activity is a hand egg beater, with wheels, gears, crank and axle.

Bungee bike tube: Tie the tube down low near the ground, so it will fly low (as it may hit legs rather than the face). Use motorbike tube or weave two bicycle tubes together to make it stronger. Cut off the valve. Draw lines on the ground with different coloured chalk, or use cones, to see how far they can pull it back. This is a good challenge to develop gross motor skills and can promote mathematical conversations.

This is an ‘activity centre’, it contains a tap, caster wheel, light switch, door handle, nut and bolt and bungee cord or similar objects. Inside there are peep holes, a Perspex mirror and cell phone. One end is open and the opposite end has a shape cut out of it. The children explore the objects using their senses (sight, touch, taste and hearing) and by observing others. They develop spatial understanding of size and shape, develop their fine motor skills, hand- eye co-ordination, and gain control of their bodies. The objects also trigger imaginative play. The ‘activity centres’ provide a link between the centre and home with familiar objects.
I have smoothed over sharp and rough edges and always consider the height of the objects with regard to eyes, and make sure the objects are fitted well. A finger could become entrapped up a tap; however taps are commonplace in all centres, so this is not a new problem. The tap and door handle have been placed in a low position to prevent it being pulled over. I have been conscientious when making all the activities to ensure that they are as safe as possible. Through observing how the children used the activity centres I redesigned the main activity centre to make this simplified version. It is made from MDF-melamine so it is washable and easy to move, and there is room to add more objects.

Funding has been received from the New Zealand local government councils, enabling Adam to make hundreds of new activity centres. This funding has enabled them to be affordable and some are given away free. This work has enabled Adam to build a rapport with men, involving them in the children’s learning through helping to obtain resources. Businesses and individuals provide waste timber, paint, old taps, mobile phones, wheels and so on.

Adam runs workshops on engaging fathers and male teachers working in early childhood. Speaking engagements keep Adam busy all over New Zealand, and also in the USA.

Adam’s passion is to get more fathers into early childhood education. He starts by organising a father – son event at the children’s centre. Most fathers recognise that they have a responsibility and special role with boy’s growth to manhood. Father-daughter events can be just as popular.

Adam says that kids love playing games with dads (or father figures). Children are the most effective recruiters – they provide the best reason for dads to be involved and will motivate their chosen father figure to attend.