Guest Post: Reducing Waste in Children’s Programming

Today’s guest post comes from my neighbour up north – the Prince George Public Library! Larissa Clotildes is a Library Assistant at the Prince George Public Library and she wrote this thoughtful post on how to reduce waste in children’s programming. It reminds me of a saying I learned in my college activist days – Think Global, Act Local. I especially love that she encourages us to be forthcoming with our choices in our programs to better advocate for greener practices in the library. Take it away, Larissa!

Ah, crafts, the backbone of children’s events everywhere! There’s nothing like gluing pipe cleaners and pompoms, cutting paper, colouring, taping, wrapping, shaping, painstakingly creating…and then throwing these masterpieces straight into the trash when the day is done. What a waste!

I am not denying the educational value of crafts. They stimulate creativity, practice fine motor skills, and allow the engagement of multiple senses in a learning experience, all elements that are incredibly important for young minds and bodies. However, I challenge myself every day to find activities that do not produce this sort of single-use waste–without sacrificing everything that makes craft projects so great.

I take the 5 Rs as my baseline: REFUSE, REUSE, REPURPOSE, REDUCE, RECYCLE

Refuse

Refuse to run programs and activities that produce waste as often as you can. I don’t recommend this for every program, but I try to do one zero-waste program per season.

Here are some I’ve run or organized:

  • Parachute Party – an entire hour of school-age parachute games and activities. Easy set-up, tonnes of fun, and zero waste!
  • Nature Walk Storytime – I’m excited to run this program in the spring. Not only will it produce no waste, but we will get to immerse ourselves in the natural world and appreciate the point of “going green” in the first place!
  • Singing Workshop – one of our Summer Reading Program activities this summer was a music workshop with a local voice teacher.

Reuse

Reuse your programming materials again and again. Dig through the storage room before you go out and buy anything new. For long-term sustainable and interesting programming, I think this is the best option because it’s also the easiest on the organizer.

Here are some reusable program and activity supplies and how I or my coworkers have used them:

  • Pool Noodles – Make a game of The Floor is Lava by laying pool noodles randomly across the floor. This is particularly fun and engaging for toddlers and preschoolers to practice balancing, but older kids get into it, too!
  • KEVA, blocks etc. – Just use these like Lego, especially if you need to spice up your Lego time.
  • Puzzles, Dice, Cards and Board Games—bonus points if you have a “giant” version!
  • Technology Activities – this could be a Minecraft hour, a robot challenge, a Makey-Makey activity, or something similar.
  • Gross Motor Activities – bean bag tosses, long jumps, hula hoops, hopscotch, and jump ropes all make great program offerings. I like these because they engage the more athletic kids (who sometimes don’t think the library is for them).
  • Chalkboard / Whiteboard – set these out instead of paper colouring sheets. Don’t have a whiteboard? Use the markers on windows and create a cool stained-glass effect, or make your own whiteboards out of old picture frames (see REPURPOSE).
  • Reusable Decorations – washable coloured tablecloths, twinkle lights, and disco balls make for good decorations in a variety of programs. Avoid single-use streamers and balloons.
  • Foam Puzzle Pieces – You gave up paper activity sheets, but you don’t have to give up the activities! Use giant foam letters to make word searches and word scramble puzzles. I recommend having at least 3 sets. These are also fun to build with, sort by colour/letter/texture, and other great STEAM and sensory activities.

Repurpose

Repurpose is my favourite R! I love finding new uses for old things, but I’ll admit that some objects are more “repurposable” than others. Pinterest is a great source of inspiration!

Here are some of my favourite repurposed projects:

  • Picture Frame to Mini Whiteboard – It gets no easier than this. Take out the picture, insert a sheet of white paper (or just turn the picture backwards, if the back is blank), reassemble, and hand out the markers!
  • Paper Puppets to Camping Kits – this was a stroke of genius on my coworker’s part. While cleaning out storage, we found boxes and boxes of popsicle-stick-and-paper puppets from old programs that we doubted would get reused. Since it was the beginning of camping season, we bagged them and handed them out as kindling kits instead of throwing them out! My dad liked them so much, he took a whole box as a Father’s Day gift!
  • Bubble Wrap to Dance Floor – Check with the staff who receive and process your deliveries of new books. They’ve probably got tonnes of bubble wrap left over. Lay it on the floor, crank up some tunes, turn down the lights, and throw a children’s dance party!
  • Crumpled Pipecleaners to Magnet Toy – If you or a coworker run a craft and end up with a bunch of crumpled pipecleaners, cut them up, put them in a clear-sided container, and set them out with a magnet wand for some early-years STEAM play.
  • Pegboard to Giant Geoboard – a local hardware store was replacing shelving at the same time I was looking into building a giant geoboard for programming. Their old pegboard was perfect for my project!

Reduce

Reduce is the final of my preferred options. Don’t feel guilty if you really want to run a craft—they do have value, and sometimes they are the best activity. I just recommend that you take steps to reduce the waste.

  • Limit Visible Materials– limit the number of materials visible for a craft at any one time. Keep a supply of extra materials beneath the table or in a box nearby, and refill as needed.
  • Activities with Few Materials – do activities that have two or three materials, rather than dozens. Examples:
    • Baking soda and Vinegar activities – the empty baking soda and vinegar containers will become (recyclable) waste. Depending on the activity, they may produce other recyclable or non-recyclable waste.
    • Bubbles – the containers you purchase the bubble liquid in will eventually become (recyclable) waste.
    • Beading-Type Activities – any incomplete or discarded creations can be deconstructed and the beads stored for reuse. Depending on the type of string you use, it may or may not be reusable or recyclable.
  • Biodegradable Materials – if some or all of the materials for an activity are biodegradable, so much the better! My favourite summer reading program activity was these binary-coded cereal birdfeeders—so much STEAM and so little waste!

Recycling

Recycling is my last resort, because recycling is still waste, even if it enjoys the reputation of being “good” waste. Here are some tips for recycling the best you can:

  • Provide a Recycling Station – If you have crafts planned, have a designated space where people can leave their creations if they do not want to bring them home—that way, you can see if the pieces can be reused or repurposed before discarding them.
  • Avoid Creating Non-Recyclable Waste – the biggie for me is slime. Essentially, every time you make slime you are making a lump of plastic. I recommend substituting playdough (gluten-free recipes available online) or oobleck, both of which are biodegradable.

Finally, I encourage you simply to talk about waste when you run a program. Talk to your coworkers about what you can do as a group to produce less waste. Talk to your management and supervisors about getting reusable replacements for your single-used supplies, and making sure you have adequate recycling bins. Finally, talk to the kids and their parents about why you chose certain activities, especially if they ask you why you aren’t doing slime or colouring sheets anymore! As models and educators, we are in a position to help families understand that they don’t have to choose between fun, education, and sustainability.

Happy programming!

10 thoughts on “Guest Post: Reducing Waste in Children’s Programming

  1. I hear you on the slime! It’s so fun but so wasteful. The slime I make now is biodegradable: xanthan gum, cornstarch, and water! Since it’s made of edible materials, it’s safe for toddlers and babies, too. If you do a search for “edible slime” you can find a variety of recipes.

  2. Brilliant post – thank you so much for this! I’ve done many of these suggestions and have learned some new tips and tricks! The Repurpose R is a wonderful concept to highlight. I’m especially appreciative of the suggestion to share the whys and hows with the patrons. Way to pass along one of the most important messages of our time!

    And thanks to the previous comment about the biodegradable slime, A. That’s a good one to know!

    1. Thank you, Kelly! Repurposing is a hobby of mine that I like bringing into my work whenever I can! The best part for me is that once I got a reputation for it, my friends and family started to seek me out with items they were about to throw away, just in case I had a use for them!

  3. Thank you for these great suggestions. There is so much waste in Children’s programming. I’m wondering about the binary coded cereal bird feeders. Do you have instructions for these? I am going to begin a once-a-month STEAM program at our library and I’m thinking that these might work for January or February.

    1. Hi Patty! I don’t have instructions specific to the bird feeders, but the project was a combination of binary bracelets (instructions here: https://code.org/curriculum/course2/14/Teacher) and Cheerio bird feeders (instructions here: https://www.messylittlemonster.com/2017/01/easy-cheerios-bird-feeders.html?m=1). I used the multi-grain non-brand-name Cheerios, because these come in two colours that can represent the 0s and 1s in binary language just like the different coloured beads in the original bracelet activity. It’s quite a simple craft that worked well with ages 7+ with some guidance. Younger kids might not do the coding aspect, but they still like the beading–and eating the Cheerios, despite my attempts to discourage it!

  4. I’ve been thinking about this a lot when it comes to library “swag” we give away at outreach events. Other groups will have branded pens, rulers, key chains, water bottles, etc. and seem to attract far more foot traffic than we do with our measly bookmarks. Any suggestions for affordable, waste-reduced options to help get our name out to the community?

    1. Hi Erica, that’s an aspect I haven’t thought much about, but there are environmentally-friendly swag options that I remember from my university days. Biodegradable branded pens, pencils, and “plant-this-bookmark/card” with embedded flower or vegetable seeds come to mind. I would recommend getting swag products that come with little packaging, that people are likely to use multiple times, and that are made from recycled/biodegradable/explicitly reusable materials.

    2. As a parent, and a librarian, I hate the little swag stuff that I just end up throwing away after it floats around in backpacks and the car for a few weeks. One of the most popular items that our library gives out is books that we are cycling out of our collection. Sometimes we call it building family libraries, or new to you.

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