Inside: STEM Challenge with simple materials that you already have in your house in the recycling bin. Draw inspiration from reading STEM picture books, like Rosie Revere, Engineer.
As parents, we want our children to grow up to be creative, critical thinkers and problem solvers. To this end, we enroll our kids in expensive engineering camps and buy them fancy science activity kits. However, another resource that is absolutely free often goes under the radar—the recycling bin in our houses.
Here are five reasons why tinkering with the content of a recycling bin is beneficial to your child.
- It builds creativity. Open-end activities do not come with instructions, and there is no requirement for a specific outcome. As one scientist wrote in an article in Creative Educator magazine, “Attention to possibilities leads to intention for possibilities, which equals creativity.” Isn’t it a poetic way to put it?
- It develops decision making. What piece stays? What goes? How do they connect?
- It pushes the limits of imaginable. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard my kids say “I didn’t think it would look like this.” By simply doing it and exploring how things fit together in space, they discover more than they originally could have imagined.
- It promotes conversation. Children LOVE talking about their inventions. Ask them “What is it you’re creating here?” and prepare to listen for an hour.
- It changes the brain. As you create more opportunities for your children to tinker, you actually help them create more neural networks in the areas of problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, and decision-making.
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How to start
Today’s tinkering session was inspired by Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty. In this story, a young girl likes to tinker with the content of the recycling bins and builds quite a few impressive things. She doesn’t always get the outcome she hopes for. But as her aunt helps her learn, she wins even when she fails because she dares to try and because failure provides valuable feedback.
In the beginning, I thought it was important to warn my kids that they were not going to get the same results as in the book. Building a real flying machine from the content of OUR recycling bin was not in the realm of possibility. But how could I break this news to my kids without discouraging them? I worried and fretted. Well, I discovered how unnecessary it was. Here is a conversation we had with my son about “a starfighter” on the pic below.
Me: “What is it?”
My son: “This is a starfighter I designed for my personal use.”
Me looking skeptically at a tea box with a few things protruding from it: “Do you want to paint it?”
My son: “Oh NO! It’s perfect the way it is.”
My son’s face, beaming with a mixture of pride and enchantment as he looks at his unassuming invention, hits me with the realization that for him it’s really perfect. It doesn’t have to REALLY fly. It doesn’t have to look MORE like the real thing. For him, it’s complete the way it is. Of course, I wasn’t surprised when he went on to play with it for hours.
STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Kids can practice STEM with simple materials that you already have in your recycling bin. Anything goes! Make sure to grab a STEM-inspired children’s book before the challenge.
What you need
Clean recycles (boxes, yogurt containers, toilet paper rolls, broken toys, bottle caps, etc.).
Loose parts (buttons, bolts, wood scraps, wires)
Art materials (glue, tape, paints, glitter, popsicle sticks, brushes, charcoal, stickers)
Natural materials (pinecones, stones, pebbles, sticks, feathers)
What to do
- Spread the items on the floor if you have no little children. If like us you have a younger sibling who can’t always be trusted with small parts, then use a dining/kitchen table. Little ones can still be included, of course. As you can see, our baby is sitting in a booster seat, exploring parts that I deemed safe for her and even helping her big brother.
- Invite kids to invent to their heart’s content. Since we do it all the time, I don’t have to do anything else. The moment my kids see the pile, their eyes sparkle with anticipation, and they dig in. However, if your kids have a hard time starting, pose some questions: Can you build a flying object with this? What’s the tallest structure you can build?
- Reflect on the outcome. What did they build? What did they learn? Any surprises along the way?
Tinkering with the content of a recycling bin is one of the most effective ways to promote creativity in children. If you are looking for more inspiration check out
15 Awesome Engineering Challenges from Gifts of Curiosity
25 STEM Challenges with Inexpensive or Recycled Materials from Frugal Fun for Boys and Girls
Book Inspired STEAM projects for Kids from Left Brain Craft Brain
Easy and Exciting STEAM activity with LEGO bricks from Kid Minds
And A year of STEM Activities and Challenges from Little Bins for Little Hands
This month is all about Storybook Science: STEM Challenges, Environmental Science (ecology, Earth Day, conservation), Citizen Science, and Space Science. The wonderful series is hosted by Inspirational Laboratories for the 4th year! Click here to check it out if you want to create more opportunities for your children to explore, invent, create, and build!