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Sustainable Preschool Classroom Art for Earth Day and Beyond

Last year, in honor of Earth Day, April’s blog post introduced picture books that inspire recycled art. The post triggered for me a reflection about the “Three R’s” of conservation – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. The three R’s are a hierarchy, not multiple choice. In other words, we should seek to reduce consumption before trying to reuse or recycle items. While recycled art may prolong the use of a material, that material may also eventually end up in the trash can. This school year, we have taken things a step further at Wildwood Nature School and sought to be deliberate about creating sustainable art.

Reduce Consumption with Natural, Compostable, and Biodegradable Art Materials

Many traditional art materials can be replaced with more environmentally friendly ones. One possibility is to use natural materials in place of manmade ones. For example, grass makes excellent hair for self-portraits; seeds can be used in collages, as fillers for sensory tables and small objects for fine motor practice; and sticks can transform playdough from an art material to adhesive for building constructions. Dried flower buds and petals can be sprinkled onto artwork in place of glitter.

Playdough is not only easy to make with natural, kitchen ingredients, but if children help with the recipe, it can provide math, science, literacy, and direction following a practice. Most of the time, our playdough remains in “natural” form, but food coloring and spices add texture and interest while keeping the playdough biodegradable.

Additional common preschool art supplies can also be concocted in the kitchen. Anyone who has done any papier-mache projects knows flour and glue make an excellent paste. Curdled milk makes a thick base for mixing pigments to make paint – just search the internet for “milk paint.” Watercolors are even easier to make, either by boiling fruits and berries to make dyes or simply mixing food coloring with water.

Sometimes DIYing classroom art supplies is not practical because they contain allergens, spoil too quickly or take too much time to prepare. Thankfully, many companies now produce water-based (as opposed to oil-based) glue, paint, and crayons colored with natural pigments. Elmer’s makes an “earth-friendly” glue made with plant matter, and Amazon carries a large selection of natural beeswax crayons.

It may take a little experimenting before finding the right substitutions. We recently switched to clay-based paints, which make excellent watercolor pigments. However, I have not yet figured out how to get the same consistency as traditional tempera or how to reliably mix the pigments to get new colors.

Reuse Paper and Scraps for Children’s Art

Not every preschool art supply can be replaced with natural items, and there may be times when educational goals and developmental needs require less environmentally friendly materials. In these cases, schools can reduce their impact on the environment by reusing and recycling within the classroom. Paper is probably the most consumed item in every preschool classroom. However, most of the art preschoolers create – especially in programs focused on process versus product -- fresh, clean paper isn’t necessary.

We have a basket of “usable scraps.” These include cardboard and paper already printed on one side, as well as greeting cards and small pieces of construction paper that are leftover from other projects.

My favorite usable scrap is the “negative” outline that is left when someone cuts a shape out of a piece of paper. That outline can be used in another person’s design as a stencil or simply glued onto paper with the background color showing through as the shape. We also keep the holes punched out with a hole puncher because they make excellent “confetti” to use in place of glitter.

It does take some children a while to get used to the idea that they do not need a clean sheet of paper – just a clean side. However, at this point in the year, all of the children happily sort through our basket of paper scraps to find the one that fits their project best.

Consider the “Life” of the Art

Usually, I try to make sure that the children’s finished product is also recyclable. This means, for example, refraining from using glitter, keeping plastic lids out of random collages, and withholding the stapler for binding. However, this does not mean that the preschool is completely plastic-free. While plastic lids are not good for art projects, they are useful as reusable building material or math manipulative. These are items that we can reuse over and over without needing to throw them away.

We use clean paper, oil-based acrylic paints, and other non-biodegradable materials in projects that we expect to last longer. The flowerpots we are painting for Mother’s Day or the ornaments we make in December are keepsakes and as such, may stick around for years. Conversely, children’s everyday doodles and snippings may sit taped to the refrigerator for a week, but then move to the trash bin.

Make Slow, Incremental Changes

Wholesale changes do not need to be made overnight. I have not thrown out all of our glitter or Crayola crayons. I plan to use them up and then replace them with more sustainable items. Some things are easier to replace than others. Moving toward a sustainable classroom is not an “all or nothing” thing. The goal is to balance learning needs and creativity with the long-term health of our planet.

Nicole Fravel Wildwood Nature School 408-656-6916


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