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Four Easy Ways to Recycle Household Materials and Play with Math

little girl playing with Cardboard Box, into her new house.
You don't need a lot to get crafty with math! Some bottle caps and cardboard will do the trick.
Did you ever think you could help your child practice graphing, counting, sorting, identifying shapes and making patterns with old boxes and bottle tops? It's easier than you think!
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Earth Day is right around the corner, which means it’s the perfect time to find ways to reuse everyday household items we normally discard. Instead of buying expensive wooden or plastic math activities, you might be surprised to learn that everything you need is lying around your house. It’s possible to create enjoyable math explorations for young children simply by thinking outside of the box and finding ways to repurpose everyday items.

Before partaking in the math activities below, watch “Sesame Street: Reuse and Make Something” with your child.

Sesame Street: Reuse and Make Something New

After you watch, explain to your child that you are going to reuse some of the things you have at your house, too! Here’s how to get started:

Bottle Caps, Lids and Tops

From condiment lids to bottle caps from milk containers, these small plastic and metal pieces are ubiquitous in most households. Instead of throwing them away, wash them out and find a container for them. Once you have a good number (20 lids or so), here are some activities that you can do with them that will support your child’s math development.

Graph what you notice. Get the bottle caps, lids, and tops, plus a large piece of paper and coloring materials. Invite your child to sort the bottle caps into piles of similar characteristics. For example, color, size, material (plastic or metal), etc. Create a simple graph and label the x-axis with the chosen characteristic (e.g., color, size, material) and the y-axis with a number that makes sense depending on how many bottle caps, lids and tops you have. Use more or less tops depending on your child’s ability. Place each bottle cap, lid and top in the corresponding area on the graph to make the concept concrete for your child. Support curiosity by using math talk such as:

  • “What do you notice about the bottle caps, lids and tops?”
  • “Which kind of top do we have the most of?”
  • “Which kind of top do we have the least of?”
  • “Why do you think we have so many caps of a certain kind?” (for example, you may have a lot of blue lids because they are on the milk you drink daily).
  • “Can we graph these in a different way? How?”

Order by size. Involve your child in putting the bottle caps, lids, and tops in order by size. Invite your child to pay close attention to what they notice about the items by using math talk such as:

  • “Which top is bigger? How do you know?”
  • “Which top is smaller? How do you know?”
  • “If this is the smallest (point to smallest object) and this is the biggest (point to biggest object) which lid would go here (point in between the small and big object)?”
  • “If I wanted to create a tiny flower with these, which tops would I use?”
  • “If I wanted to create a big flower with these, which tops would I use?”

Extend the learning by inviting your child to create transient art with the materials. For example, ask your child to create a robot using five bottle caps, or a wiggly worm using 10 bottle caps.

Cardboard Creations

As much as we try to purchase locally, it’s inevitable that we have at least a handful of cardboard boxes at the end of the month. We also enjoy pizza on Friday, which means we end up with a surplus of pizza boxes. Thankfully, cardboard can be recycled or reused. We often choose the latter. Our 4-year-old has created a variety of creations over the past few months, from a car, an airplane, a robot costume, bird wings, a pizza box easel and even a dollhouse. The sky’s the limit with cardboard creations, but here are a few ideas to bring some math into the mix.

Create a house of shapes. Set up an area outside or in the kitchen where your child can paint. Place newspaper or an old sheet on the ground prior to the activity to protect the surfaces. Get out paint brushes, glue, scissors, a variety of different sized cardboard boxes (such as cereal boxes, shoe boxes, old package boxes, etc.) and tempera paint. Find scrap paper or colorful construction paper and cut out a variety of shapes in different sizes like stars, hexagons, squares, circles, rectangles, diamonds and more. Involve your child in identifying the shapes as you support them in cutting them out. Verbalize similarities and differences about the shape attributes. Use math talk such as:

  • “Which shapes have straight lines? How many do you see?”
  • “Which shapes have curvy lines? What do you notice when you trace the shape with your finger?”
  • “Which shapes look like the boxes? Why?”

Invite your child to choose and paint different boxes to create a house of shapes. Support your child in gluing the boxes to each other in different ways to create interesting architecture. After the paint dries, help your child glue the different shapes on the boxes. Use math talk to help them think about what shapes they could use as doors, windows and decorative patterns. You can ask, “Which shape looks the most like a door? Why?” After the house of shapes dries, bring it to a play area and invite your child to use their imagination and a variety of figurines and toys to play with their house.

Pizza box patterns. Open a pizza box and get rid of any extra crumbs. Then ask your child to paint the inside of the box with the color of their choice. Allow time for the pizza box to dry. Next, shape the pizza box like an easel by propping it up and taping it to the ground so it’s sturdy. Provide your child with a variety of creative materials such as buttons, stickers, plastic gems, beads and colorful shapes made from scrap paper and tissue paper. Invite your child to create and glue patterns on the pizza box with the materials. Use math talk to engage them in critical thinking such as:

  • “If I use a blue button, a red button and a blue button, what button color should I use next? How do you know?”
  • “Can you create a pattern using two different materials? What about three?”
  • “How many different patterns can you create using these beads?”

Repurposing household materials is a great way to encourage out-of-the-box thinking, reduce waste and support young children in developing foundational math skills. What else do you have lying around that can turn into math fun?

Here are a few more resources that can help get your imagination going:

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