Enabling Environments: Let's explore ... rubbish

Marianne Sargent
Friday, October 4, 2013

Introducing some waste-inspired activities can help children learn about reusing, recycling and disposal. Marianne Sargent suggests a range of approaches.

Rubbish is a broad topic, with scope for capitalising on a range of interests, from large vehicles and machinery to sparkly crafts. There is a wealth of rubbish-inspired activities that involve reusing, recycling and inventive disposal. Here are just a few:


Set up a role-play household waste-sorting site.

Adult role

  • Send out a letter asking parents for clean recyclable rubbish.
  • Set up a role-play waste-sorting site in an area of the setting with plenty of space around it. Outdoors in good weather is ideal.
  • Use very large rectangular plastic boxes to represent the containers found at a real waste-sorting site.
  • Print out and laminate some labels to stick to the front of the boxes - for example, 'plastic', 'metal', 'paper and card', 'textiles' and 'non-recyclables'.
  • Provide some ride-on vehicles with trailers, such as tractors, for transporting rubbish.
  • Find a thick piece of card large enough for a trailer to sit on.
  • Paint it grey and label it 'weighbridge'. Draw up a table with two columns, 'weight (kg)' and 'charge (pounds )'. Fill the table in with simple weight values, for example, 1kg-10kg and corresponding charges such as £5-£50. Laminate it and display it next to the weighbridge.
  • Provide some large magnets for the children to sort magnetic metals from the rest of the waste.
  • - Set up a fully equipped office for the site managers.
  • Show the children some videos explaining how household waste is collected, sorted and recycled. Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority has produced a set of educational videos, including one that shows how household waste recycling centres work. You can find this online at www.merseysidewda.gov.uk/media-and-news/films-and-videos/ educational-films- and-videos. There are also some good videos for adults on the Recycle Now website, www.recyclenow.com.
  • Play in the role-play site with the children and model the use of the different areas and equipment. Encourage the children to share their own experiences of recycling at home.
  • Ask the children to help make a bin lorry using large cardboard boxes. Use a slightly smaller box for the cab and a larger one for the back. Put some cardboard dividers in so the children can sort the waste as they load it.

Learning opportunities

CL: Uses language to imagine and recreate roles and experiences in play situations.

UW: Shows care and concern for the environment.

EAD: Introduces a storyline or narrative into their play.


Read The Great Paper Caper by Oliver Jeffers. It is about a group of animals who live in a forest that is gradually disappearing. The children are encouraged to act as detectives throughout by spotting clues as to who the culprit might be.

The story offers a good introduction to the issues surrounding paper production and the effects it has on the environment. Use it as inspiration for making recycled paper angels.

Adult role

  • Explain that, just like plastic, metal and glass, it is also possible to recycle paper. Show the children some recycled paper products and tell them that they are going to recycle some paper:
  • Give the children a pile of scrap paper and ask them to tear or cut it up into small pieces.
  • Put the paper into a blender, fill it one third of the way then add warm water. The blender should be two-thirds full. Blend it into a pulp.
  • Empty the blender into a large bucket. Mix in some glitter. Ask the children to scoop up the pulp in sieves and press the water out of it.
  • Lay a large piece of felt on top of a piece of an open newspaper. Transfer the pulp on to the felt, mould it into a ball and flatten it out to form a round shape.
  • Fold over the newspaper and press down to squeeze any excess water out of the pulp.
  • Leave the flattened pulp to dry then peel it off the felt.
  • Help each child mark the centre of their circle of paper with a pencil and then use a ruler to draw a straight line from the centre of the circle to the edge. Help them cut along this line and fold the paper around until it makes a cone shape. Stick it with Sellotape.
  • Cut a round paper doily into four quarters and stick two pieces on the cone for wings.
  • Hand out some wooden dolly pegs to the children and help them draw on faces and stick wool on for hair. Snip the point off the cone of paper and stick the wooden dolly peg through the hole.

Learning opportunities

PD: Handles tools, objects and malleable materials safely and with increasing control.

UW: Talks about why things happen and how things work.

EAD: Explores a variety of materials, tools and techniques


Set up a wormery to make use of organic waste.

Adult role

  • Read Yucky Worms by Vivian French and Jessica Ahlberg (Nature Storybooks). It is an informative picture book about how useful worms are.
  • Involve the children in setting up a wormery. There are two options for this. If you have a lot of garden and food waste to dispose of and are likely to use the compost or liquid feed produced you could purchase a professional wormery. Original Organics has a good range (www.originalorganics.co.uk). On the other hand, children can make their own small wormeries for observation over a number of months.
  • To make your own wormery, work with small groups. First, pierce some holes in the lid of a large glass jar. Put a layer of sand about 1cm deep in the bottom of the jar. Put a layer of moist soil about 3cm deep on top of the sand. Repeat until the jar is almost full, leaving 5cm of space at the top. Collect some worms. If this is not possible at your setting, send a letter home asking parents to take their children out worm hunting. Put the worms in the top of the jar and cover them with organic waste. Put the lid on and place the jars in a warm dark cupboard.
  • Check the jar each week. Encourage the children to talk about what they can see. What do the contents of the jar look like? What is happening to the waste they put at the top of the jar? Allow the children to add more waste when needed. Ensure the contents stay moist but not too wet.

Learning opportunities

PD: Handles tools and objects safely and with increasing control.

UW: Develops an understanding of decay and changes over time.

UW: Makes observations of animals and explains why things occur.


Recycling song

  • Sing this song to the tune of Incy Wincy Spider:

We recycle rubbish and sort it into bins,

Paper, plastic, glass, cardboard, steel and tin,

The bin men come and fetch it and drive it all away,

To be recycled into things and used another day.

  • Orchard Toys has produced a board game called What's Rubbish? (www.orchardtoys.com). The game includes a recycle bin for children to sort waste, and is best played with the help of an adult.


  • Make junkmobiles: use large cardboard boxes and junk and help the children make automobiles.
  • If you have a garden, set up a compost bin. Collect clippings and fruit and vegetable waste.
  • Set up a small-world landfill site with diggers, bulldozers and toy vehicles with caterpillar tracks or spiked wheels that resemble compactors.



Rubbish and Recycling by Alex Frith and Peter Allen (Usborne See Inside) - an interactive and extremely informative book about all aspects of waste disposal.

This Book is Totally Rubbish (A Maggie and Rose Activity Book) by Maggie Bolger (Walker) - creative activities using recycled materials.

George Saves the World by Lunchtime by Jo Readman and Ley Honor Roberts (Eden) - a little boy learns about recycling rubbish, reusing unwanted items and fixing toys.

Michael Recycle Meets Litterbug Doug and Litterbug Doug (Worthwhile Books) by Ellie Bethel - about a boy who hates recycling and a superhero intent on changing the boy's ways.


  • Sort it out: plastic tubs and bottles, cardboard packaging, egg boxes, waste paper, fabrics, metals, ride-on vehicles with trailers, very large plastic containers, large magnets, clipboards, paper, pencils, high-visibility jackets, gloves, hard hats, flasks, brooms, phone, walkie-talkies, cash box, money and receipt book.
  • Paper angels: scrap paper, scissors, blender, large bucket, glitter, sieves, whole newspapers, large pieces of felt, Sellotape, round paper doilies with lace patterns, wooden dolly pegs, felt pens, wool and PVA glue.
  • Waste for worms: large glass jars, sand, soil, worms, organic waste such as leaves, vegetable and fruit peelings.

Marianne Sargent is a writer specialising in early years education and a former foundation stage teacher and primary and early years lecturer.

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