How to Let your Kids be Creative (Without Creating Tons of Waste)

by - Saturday, March 16, 2019

Making art creates so much joy.

It can also create a huge mess.

Now, we know that kids making art is needed.  The more art you make, the happier you are, more creative, and more open to mistakes. It is proven again and again that art-making is essential to early development, and creative activities even help kids perform better in all other subjects.

That said, they can also create a lot of mess and a lot of waste. I hear parents complain (often) about the hoards of art projects that now live in their house. They don't want to throw things away, but as time goes on, so does the pile up. And that doesn't even count all the markers, paint containers, and papers that do get sent off to a landfill, making a mess of the planet.

If you are trying to live a green life, this can really add up. Like every aspect of our lives, little decisions can start to make a huge impact if we make them all the time.  In my house, we try to do some sort of art-making or creative play for an hour everyday (this is obviously under ideal conditions, so we often don't succeed). So, it's important to me that we start cutting out some of the trash (and endless piles of barely used construction paper) that comes with tiny artists.

So, here are my best ideas of how to keep making art without making so much trash. Take some, leave some, and know that you are getting absolutely no judgement from me if you can't get it perfect. What parent can? We can all do something, but no one can do everything.

1. Find a Secondhand Art Supply Shop

When I am not writing to you fine people or raising my children, I work as an art teacher at a neighborhood gem. Seattle Recreative sells secondhand art supplies, keeping thousands of pounds of supplies out of landfills AND becoming my one and only dealer for construction paper. It's so much cheaper. Check online if you have a creative reuse store near you (they are getting more and more popular).

This way, you are keeping things out of landfills and investing a lot less money into art supplies. If there isn't anything like that nearby, I highly recommend checking your local thrift shops for this. You might be surprised!

2. Garbage is the Perfect Art Supply

What I have learned in my years working at Seattle Recreative is that we throw art supplies out everyday. Pill Bottles, Wipe Containers, bottle caps, egg cartons, Scrap paper, and corks can be a creature with some googley eyes and a musical instrument with some imagination. I am consistently blown away with the things kids (and adults!) make. All you really need is a hot glue gun, some paint, and the invitation.

How do I make this work at my house? We have a big plastic tub, and when we use up a piece of packaging that could be an art supply, I keep it out of the trash and put it in the tub. We have made all sorts of things out of them.

For inspiration, I often bring up the Watts Towers and Simon Rodia. There is a great book about him called Dream Something Big and some fun Youtube videos to watch as well.

paper plate solar system project

It doesn't even have to be this complicated. Cardboard is a perfect canvas to start on. You can put the art maker inside a box, and let them go to town. Or cut up old boxes and use them for paintings or collages. We used a piece of cardboard shipped with a frame as the base for our solar system collage (also featuring paper plates).

The trick is to stop throwing things away and start asking yourself what you can make out of it.

3. Clay for Days

Clay has a magical, calming effect on kids of almost any age. I have seen it with kids from 3 to 15. If you have a kid who likes to make, getting the hang of your own playdough can be an easy way to keep practicing without creating much plastic waste (or art you don't really know how to house). Mostly, parents seem more attached to keeping things than their kids, but if you kid made something they really want to keep,

The beauty of play dough (or air dry clay- which I really like the Crayola kind, which comes in big tubs which I can reuse) is that you can ball it up and start over again the next time. It can really be process-oriented, and if there is no product in the end, they still learned things!

kids painting on ice

4. Embrace Ephemerality

If you are trying to avoid the endless pile of paper, start thinking in terms of art that isn't meant to last! My favorite projects are painting on leaves or ice (tempera works great for both), arranging natural elements into art outside (Andy Goldworthy makes great inspiration), or try painting in the bath or outside. You can also using spray bottles of diluted food coloring in the snow, making structures at the beach, and more.

Want the easiest possible version of this? Get sticks and draw pictures in the sand, dirt, or mud. That is really all it takes for a fun day with a positive impact.

Another amazing art form that goes away? Food! Making cakes, watermelon sculptures, frosting cookies, rolling gnocchi, putting faces on sandwiches. It's all good fun. We can forget this is an artistic endeavor, but it might be your kid's favorite one!

It's all good, and if you let go of the idea that there will be a finished product to treasure forever, you can come up with some great stuff!

Toddlers painting with cars

5. Make your Own Crayons (and Paintbrushes... and Paint)

You have probably already heard of making your own crayons. We made our own crayons out of the nubbins my kids had accumulated over the course of the year. If that doesn't make enough for you, ask your neighbors on Buy Nothing if they will save their broken crayons for you. We put our crayon nubbins in molds and melt our own new, funky crayons. I recommend using a simple mold to make them in, because the complicated ones tend to be much harder to use.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Literally anything can be an implement to put paint on a canvas. Some work better that others, but it can be a perfect final stop for a toothbrush or you can use toy cars and just wash them off afterward.  I also have found that making our own brushes out of different types of leaves and plants was really fun- here is a great post on how to do it.

Feeling extremely ambitious? You can make your own paint too! Here's a post about how to make simple doodle paint.

6. Find your Palette

You don't need fancy brand new surfaces to put paint on. Use those tupperware lids that don't have a partner anymore. Or a plate from the set you retired. It just has to be a flat, not too porous surface.

Trust me, no matter how many divisions you give them, kids just have to mix them all together anyway! What color will happen if you mix them all together? They have to know, and the answer is always brown. So embrace any kind of flatness.

7.  Try a Sketch Book 

Even for little ones, sometimes a sketch book can be a better option for keeping things together and making sure every page gets used. I have a bunch of old sketchbooks that my kid has now filled up for me.

The key here is to know your kid. If they are going to draw one line on every page, this may not be the right solution for them. If they go one page at a time, they can use it until it is bursting with pictures. If you want to give them inspiration for filling their sketchbooks, look up the bug illustrations from Maria Merian or images of van Gogh's sketchbooks. You can look up sketches by any famous artist, and it can be so inspiring to remember they make/made mistakes and worked through ideas too.

For recycled notebooks, I recommend looking at the post-consumer content of the paper. 100% is a reachable goal. eco-kids sketch books hit this mark, and I thought they worked pretty well. Big Black Bee also sells 100% recycled paper notebooks that are spiral bound.

8. Buy Eco-Art Supplies

If you are going to get something new, you can still pick more environmentally conscientious choices. I really love this post from Barley and Birch that points to some great eco options; I learned a few things!

Crayola has a program where you can turn in dead markers and they will reuse them. Do this. Recycle the paper you can't reuse.

If it's made of plastic and you can't recycle it, it may just not be worth buying. There are so many better options out there, you may find something better. If not, those art containers belong in your tub of future art supplies, so think about what could be reused. If you think it is destined to just be thrown away, don't buy it!

chalk projects for kids

9. Practice Mark Making with Chalk

As your kiddo is learning to make marks, starting to draw, or really getting into figuration, they need a ton of practice. Just like anything, you get these skills with repetition and experimentation, and for many kids, they like drawing and marking and even writing the same things again and again. This can mean a lot of paper gets some scribbles, and then they are done with it.

I highly recommend using a chalkboard instead. It can be a small starter chalkboard, the sidewalk in front of your house, or an easel; the key is that you can erase and reuse that surface over and over, so they are getting lots of practice.

Love the idea but you have a painter on your hands? At Seattle Recreative they turned a clear plastic sheet (with a vintage frame around it- so cool!) into a painter's paradise. Toddlers come in and paint on the wall, then we wipe it off for the next kid! For something really special, you can press a paper down on it and make a print too. You could make one for your home if you have an art space, and then pass it off to another family when your kid outgrows it.

painting wrapping paper with toddlers

10. Reuse what You Do Make

If you are using a lot of paper, they can be perfect to use as mail for family members or wrapping paper for gifts. You should obviously save the ones you love. but consider the ways you can turn the art your kids make into gifts for others. It's so simple, and there is so much love in it.

But you can also think about ways to pick art-making that leads to usable objects. Things like knitting, sewing, and more. You probably don't need to hand off too many of those coil pots, though.

How to Let Your Kids  Be Creative (Without Creating Tons of Waste)

Any art project can be amazing, with or without new supplies and lots of fuss.

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  1. These are great tips! I'm always looking for new and creative ways to let my little on make art.

  2. I love this! So many good ideas, that make you as the adult happy but also the kids.

  3. These are great suggestions. One reason I don't love doing art with my kids is because of the mess and waste. Thanks for the article!

  4. Thank you for sharing these tips, we always have such a mess after doing activities with them.

  5. Lovely tips! I gotta share this with my new mommy friends :)

  6. We are busy using all our "rubbish" to make arts and crafts with and we are having SO much fun!

  7. My son is the best at minimizing waste for art projects. He recycles everything from toilet paper rolls to plastic bottles and their caps. I love his imagination and the minimal waste it uses !



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