As I was setting up the art room in my new office, someone asked me which art supplies are my favourite. I had spent the day unpacking boxes of beautiful pastels, arranging paint tubes, organizing pom poms and pipe cleaners, and sorting through pencil crayons.
My answer to the question was immediate and unexpected.
I said, without a doubt, that my favourite art materials were all inside the recycling bin.
Like a toddler who wants the wrapping paper over the present, I was more excited about the packaging that the supplies came in. I kept the scraps of cardboard and bubble wrap, imagining the amazing things I could create.
I have found in my work with children that they also LOVE creating with recycled materials and found objects. When I bring out the bin and we look through it together, it’s a sure way to access a child’s creativity and resourcefulness.
So what is it about recycling that makes it so inspiring?
Here are 12 reasons why I love using recycled materials for art therapy:
- Recycled materials are affordable, sustainable, and readily available. It doesn’t cost anything to reuse a plastic bottle or a cardboard box for an art project. This is an art material that is accessible to everyone, and all families can try it at home.
- In contrast to a blank page that might feel intimidating, recycled materials offer a starting point for inspiration. A paper towel roll encourages children to pick it up and look through it, which may lead to the creation of a telescope or binoculars. The shape of a milk carton might inspire a little house. Bottle caps could work well for wheels. The idea for the creative project is often sparked by the materials themselves.
- Recycled materials are not precious. This gives permission and freedom to experiment without worrying about ruining the materials or wasting them.
- The process of working with recycled materials begins with sensory exploration. If we are going to use something that already exists, first we need to explore its existing properties. We need to pick it up, see how it feels, turn it around, test what it can do. Does it have parts that come off? Is there a lid? Can it be broken down into smaller pieces? What could each piece be used for? What can we turn it into? What does its shape and texture remind us of? Would it work best standing up or lying down? This sensory exploration helps us to tap into our senses, which facilitates an embodied art making experience. The more senses we can involve, the more integrated our learning and processing will be.
- Recycled materials are open ended. There is no right or wrong way to turn a plastic bottle into a rocket ship. The concept of turning something into something else implies that the rules no longer exist. When a plastic bottle stops being a bottle and starts being a rocket ship, the possibilities are endless. Children may have ideas about what a drawing of a rocket ship is supposed to look like. But this particular bottle has never been a rocket ship, so there are no pre-existing expectations for how to create it.
- Recycled materials encourage three dimensional creation. Jars, boxes, bubble wrap – these things are textured and three dimensional. They may be flattened or cut up, but they start out taking up three dimensional space. Creating three dimensional artwork helps children to learn about boundaries, coordination, and relationships between objects. It encourages the creation of an art product that they can really interact with.
- Working with recycled materials results in concrete, visible transformation. This can be a metaphor for change in therapy.
- The process is inherently hopeful. The object has already served its intended purpose, so whatever comes of the creative exploration is a bonus. It feels hopeful when the plastic bottle lives on as a rocket ship. It sends the message that there is potential in everything, and that nothing is “beyond saving.”
- It honours story by acknowledging where the materials have come from. The cardboard may have writing or images printed on it, and there may be labels or stickers on other objects. These tell the story of where the material has been. Sometimes the labels are removed or covered during the art making process, but sometimes they remain visible. This reminds me of how we come to art therapy with previous experiences and stories. Our past is important, and it is part of the story we are currently telling. Sometimes it’s barely visible, and sometimes it’s front and centre. Working with recycled materials symbolically honours this process.
- The act of looking through the recycling bin and then choosing what to work with mirrors our growth process in therapy. There are so many diverse elements that make up our sense of self and our life story. Therapy offers an opportunity to take a look inside at what’s there, see what fits, and work with the things that grab our interest. We have power and control in creating our own story.
- It feels good to make something out of recycled materials! It’s empowering to use what we have, to find a way to make it work, and to re-imagine a second life for the object. The process really highlights resourcefulness. And reusing materials is good for the environment! It always feels nice to care for nature.
- Working with recycled materials helps us to see our world differently. Once we start thinking about how we can use what is around us, anything can be anything if you just look at it creatively. This is in direct contrast to our dominant consumer culture that tells us we always need more, better, newer, next. My motto is “we can use what we have to make what we need”. Things aren’t stuck as they are, and they don’t have to be what they seem. This perspective lessens feelings of scarcity or rigidity. It leads to optimism, creativity, openness, and acceptance. It ultimately builds resourcefulness.
So, how have I put this into action? After setting up the art room, I used the cardboard from the furniture boxes to create a dollhouse. Building a house was much harder than I anticipated, and I wanted to give up halfway through the process. But I took a break and then kept going, and I’m really glad that I did. My cardboard house is perfectly imperfect, and I’m so very proud of it.
If you come visit the art room, you will notice that the cardboard dollhouse is front and centre. You’ll also find a fire-breathing dragon puppet made out of recycled newspaper, masking tape, and reclaimed fabric.
And a cardboard crown.
I have intentionally included these objects in the art room because I want to create a culture of repurposing.
I want everyone who visits the art room to be invited into this way of thinking. I hope that these objects inspire curiosity and creativity. They’re a little nod to the motto – you can use what you have to make what you need. I can help.
Let’s explore the physical and metaphorical recycling bin. What you’re bringing is valuable and full of potential. There is hope and possibility. Things don’t have to stay the way they are. Let’s re-imagine and co-create something amazing.
To learn more about how you can work with me, get in touch to book your free introductory meeting.
In the meantime, happy making! Share your recycled creations on Instagram with the hashtag #resourcefulreimagining.
Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT