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Post-Christmas recycling

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By Robert Wattsco-author of Teaching Art and Design 3-11 (Continuum Books) and Programme Convener for the MA Art, Craft and Design Education at Roehampton University

If you find yourself with a glut of recycling materials this New Year, try out these fun D&T ideas that will encourage creative thinking and teamwork

It’s the New Year, a fresh start and – oh no, what’s this? Not another child weighed down by a sack load of Christmas cards, boxes and wrapping paper! Don’t they realise there’s a limit to the number of ideas for recycling materials a teacher can come up with? Never fear, Child Education PLUS is here with a selection of practical activities to transform that post-Christmas collection into some amazing structures and works of art. Here you’ll find five ideas to challenge and engage your class, ideas that will prompt children to experiment with basic construction techniques, recognise the unique properties of familiar materials and explore colour, shape, form and pattern.

The activities could easily be taught in parallel, one set up on each table in the classroom. Several need to be completed in pairs, so you could use the ideas as opportunities for children to develop their ability to work in groups. Encourage the children to use the illustrated examples as starting points but once they are confident with the techniques and skills for each activity, they will want to develop their own ideas.


  1. Twisting snake
  2. Cardboard castle
  3. Collage
  4. House of cards
  5. Bridge of cards

1. Twisting snake

D&T Recycling Image 1

Age range: 4 to 11 Curriculum links: D&T 1a-d, 2d, 4a; art and design 5a, 5b You will need: used gift-wrapping paper

This is a great way of recycling wrapping paper and one that teaches children about the surprising strength of paper. Begin by handing children sheets of wrapping paper and asking them whether they think it is a strong material. Most will say no – it is, after all, easy to tear. Demonstrate how to roll a piece of paper into thin rolls and seal it with a few small pieces of masking tape. When you have three pieces, teach the children how to plait the three pieces together to make a rope-like structure. They’ll need to work in pairs for this and may find it tricky at first, but once they get into the rhythm of selecting each piece in turn, they’ll soon have a plait that can be taped at one end.

Children will be surprised to find how strong the plaited paper is. In the example shown above, we used metallic wrapping paper. This is great for molding into curved shapes, which immediately suggested a snake. We taped a head made from scrunched-up paper then added a pair of eyes and a tongue cut from the wrapping paper.

2. Cardboard castle


Age range: 4 to 11 Curriculum links: D&T 1a-d, 2d, 4a; art and design 5a, 5b You will need: cardboard boxes

Cardboard boxes are another great starting point for post-Christmas experiments. The possibilities here are endless but, as the example above shows, we bowed to pressure from the boys and opted for the classic castle, complete with a working drawbridge. Experiment with combining sections from different boxes to make more complex structures, and with applying further materials on to the surfaces. Encourage the children to think about designing a pattern for the colours on the sides of the boxes: a limited range of colours often provides an effective finish. In our castle, we painted the inside and applied strips of wrapping paper to the outside.

3. Collage


Age range: 4 to 11 Curriculum links: Art and design 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, 4a, 5a-d You will need: cardboard boxes

Collage activities in the classroom can sometimes be a little directionless and disappointing, with a sense that ‘anything goes’. Providing children with some initial guidance and specific challenges will greatly improve the results. Try looking for inspiration in abstract art, such as paintings by Patrick Heron (use a search engine to find examples of his work). Ask the children to draw some shapes onto the back of the wrapping paper, cut around them and arrange them onto a sheet of card. Suggest that they use the ‘negative shapes’ that are left in the wrapping paper too as these will add an element of surprise to their compositions. Encourage the children to overlap shapes and to allow some shapes to travel off the sides of the paper. As before, using a limited range of colours and tones can be easier to manage and more effective than a wide range.

4. House of cards

Age range: 7 to 11 Curriculum links: D&T 1a-d, 2d You will need: used gift cards


At first glance, the house of cards in the picture above might look like a hugely challenging structure to emulate! But don’t worry, we’re allowed to cheat a little here. Building a ‘house of cards’ is a challenge that children have endeavored to achieve for many years – there is, in fact, a beautiful 18th Century painting (“House of Cards”: by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin) in the National Gallery, depicting a child doing just that. In theory, each folded card is supposed to rest unaided on the cards below, before providing support for subsequent cards. This can be achieved – but probably not before playtime!

To make the task easier, let the children add little pieces of masking tape to the joins between each of the cards to ensure that the structure stays sturdy. Children will still need to concentrate, however, as they will need to plan ahead and work out how many cards they will need for each layer. Provide support for children as they experiment with securing the first few cards together, and suggest they work in pairs. As they grow more confident, encourage them to experiment with their own designs.

5. Bridge of cards

Age range: 7 to 11 Curriculum links: D&T 1a-d, 2d, 4a You will need: used gift tags (the folded type)


This activity was inspired by a recent trip to the Interactive Launchpad at the Science Museum One of the challenges presented to children at the museum is to manipulate into place a number of blocks to form the arc of a self-supporting bridge. In order to succeed, they need to recognise that there is one essential ingredient to the task: teamwork. It’s impossible to build the bridge alone, as the structure is dependent upon the placement of the final piece; until then, it requires support from two people.

Challenge the children to work in groups to construct a self-supporting bridge from gift tags. Let the children work out for themselves how they can do this or, to make the activity easier, cut slots in the top of each card so that they can be slotted together (make a single cut across the two sides, and cut at a slight angle). Just like the bridge in the Science Museum, two pairs of hands will be needed to support the structure until the top piece is put into place: at this point the bridge should be self-supporting. Extend the activity by challenging the children to make a structure that is long enough to bridge the gap between two desks.


  1. SmileyPR
    on 28 November 2011

    Small photos

    Pity the photos are so small. It is difficult to view the results.


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