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How to Create an At-Home Reuse Zone

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Meredith's daughter explores materials in the family's reuse zone - MEREDITH BAY-TYACK
  • meredith bay-tyack
  • Meredith's daughter explores materials in the family's reuse zone

Encouraging eco-friendly art projects and open-ended play can be as simple as setting up a "reuse zone" in your home. In my household, we used to incorporate recycled items into crafts and play on occasion. But establishing a designated, organized area for kid projects and play has helped our kids, ages 5 and 2, find inspiration on their own — and given my husband and me the ability to have conversations that aren't interrupted by entreaties of "What can I do now?"

Think of the "reuse zone" as a detour for miscellaneous objects between their intended use and the recycling center or landfill. They won't likely stay out of the garbage or recycling bin forever, but they'll be appreciated and enjoyed a bit more before they go. My 2-year-old often turns bottle caps, corks and other small items into "food" or building material for towers. My 5-year-old has made everything from a puppet theater to a castle for a handmade queen. Little kids can simply observe the adults in their life setting up and maintaining the zone, while older kids may engage more fully. My 5-year-old regularly identifies things she wants to put in the space.

The reuse zone helps teach kids respect for materials. Instead of mindlessly tossing things, we consider how they can serve a different purpose ("Let's use this yogurt container to build a spaceship!").

Occasionally, we also talk about how the item came to be. All materials, from plastic to cardboard, take a long journey before they arrive on store shelves and make their way into our daily lives. We discuss how we share everything on earth with all of the people and animals living here. My kids also relate strongly to the fact that effort and resources were used to create the item, so we should show it care and respect. I try to keep it positive in my phrasing. Instead of "Don't waste paper. That's not nice to the trees it came from," I say something like, "This cardboard used to be a tree! Isn't that neat? We could recycle it now, or we could use it again for art or building. That might be a great way to thank the tree and all the people involved in creating the cardboard."

At a grocery store recently, my 5-year-old enjoyed a pasta sample. Then she held up the little fork and cup and said, "Mom, let's save these to reuse."

Below, find my tips to help you establish a reuse zone in your own home.

A mochi container becomes an item for nature play - MEREDITH BAY-TYACK
  • meredith bay-tyack
  • A mochi container becomes an item for nature play

Identify reusable materials. Look through your recycling bin for caps, cardboard, plastic cups and other nonhazardous items. Cut cardboard into smaller pieces or different shapes. Circle-shaped cardboard can be attached to yarn as ornaments or party decorations. Squares of cardboard can serve as canvases for painting and collage. Cardboard boxes can transform into play houses or dioramas. Corks, shipping materials and twist ties are common items we redirect to our reuse zone. Glued onto a circle of cardboard, these items become a decorative wreath. Or wrap twist ties around corks and add two dots for eyes, and you can create a village of cork people. Sometimes my kids become immersed in play with the reused items that I can't quite identify. If the materials spark their creativity and interest, I don't want to interrupt their magic with questions about the structure or specifics of the game.

Choose your zone carefully. Physical parameters ensure your reuse zone doesn't end up taking up too much space. We dedicated one drawer of the dresser where we keep art supplies to found and reusable materials. We also have an open-top bin for larger things that don't fit in the drawer. Whether you have a tiny house or a large one, creating a physically limited area for kid-accessible, reusable stuff will save the stress of rushing all over the house and garage to gather items.

Create a process for keeping things. Pause before you put items in the trash or recycling. It may take some mental energy at first, but it will eventually become habit. One word of caution from personal experience: Try to avoid taking on more packaging than you typically do simply because you now have a spot at home where it might be reused. Things will pile up very quickly. Even while living relatively low-waste and avoiding single-use items, we still find we have more than enough supplies for our reuse zone.

Share the process with the kids! If reuse is a new concept for your children, involving them from the start can pique their interest. Ask them where they'd like to store reusable, recycled materials that they'll have access to for art and play. Talk through what you're putting in the drawer (or bin, or bag) and how it might be used. For example, you might say, "This tissue paper came with my new shirt. It can be crinkled, cut up or glued to this piece of cardboard." See the "Further reading" section above for books and online inspiration if you're not the crafty type.

Set up parameters for use and reevaluate as needed. At first, you may want to set up invitations to play or create by laying out materials for your kids. Setting out caps and other tiny items like corks and small cups alongside a ball of play dough can yield hours of fun (or at least 15 minutes while you pull together dinner). My 5-year-old daughter likes to be given an arc-shaped piece of cardboard; a container of colorful, small items and magazine clippings; and glue to create a recycled rainbow. Once your kids know where to find the reuse zone and other useful items like scissors, yarn and glue, they may start to design their own projects or create their own games and mini-worlds. On occasion, we've had to take out certain items that we find aren't age-appropriate or cause too much mess without supervision. For example, when my 2-year-old discovered that tissue paper was easily ripped into tiny pieces, we had to retire it for a little while. Tweak the setup until it works for your family. 

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