Get free weekly activities like this, straight to your inbox. Sign up now

Renewable Art

Age: 0 to 8+ Time: 1 hour+
Materials: Paper to recycle, 3 or 5 gallon bucket, bowls or buckets for kids, newspaper, absorbent cloth, water source, window screen, scissors, old frame (optional), duct tape (optional), rolling pin
Skills: Creativity, Naturalist, Fine Motor, Sensory

If your home is anything like ours, your kids are constantly creating. You fully support the process, but reach a familiar yet irksome catch-22: either callously dispose of their creations while they sleep, or drown in a sea of kid artwork. It was this dilemma, combined with our 5-year-old's self-appointment as recycling officer (thank you, preschool), that sparked the idea of making paper. Our solution: guide young artists to pick a few works to display, then take the rest outside and develop a nature-themed line of hand-made paper.

The act of paper-making is a phenomenal sensory experience and a chance for boundless, yet productive mess-making. Focus the effort on curating additional ingredients from nature like leaves, flower petals and even small twigs, and this project becomes even more memorable, not to mention the results can be beautiful. Before embarking on this project, our kids’ frame of reference for recycling never made it beyond the bin. This was our chance to experience the cycle in recycle. Every bit of material we used was reused or repurposed. Finally, this was a lesson in letting go of the trappings of stuff and the attachment to objects—a powerful life lesson to people of any age!

The Guide

  1. Have a conversation: We started out by asking our kids what they thought we should do with the piles of artwork they had created. We suggested, “What if we took some of the pictures and recycled them to make new art?" Our 5 year old was pro-recycling but visibly pained by letting the precious pictures go. We laid out the pictures and talked to them, explaining to them how exciting it will be to transform themselves into something new! Our kids continued to verbally “remind” the various works of art about this evolution as they ripped them to make pulp. Quite sweet.
  2. Make your frame: There are two different methods in which you can produce two different frames. First, take a large, old picture frame and use a staple gun to attach window screen to one side. This will become the paper-making/drying surface. You can also use a 7"x9" section of window screen and put duct tape around the edges. This new tool becomes the screen within a pan to catch pulp (a more traditional method with a more even result).
  3. Prep the pulp: First, be sure that you are not using paper with any kind of coating or sheen. Using newspaper? Just be cool with grey paper. Rip the paper into small-ish pieces (about the size of a quarter?) and place them in a bucket. If wee ones struggle with ripping, make small tears all around the edges of a paper for them. Given that head start, it’s much easier (and so satisfying) for them to rip. Once you have paper in the bucket, cover the paper with water and let the paper soak for about 30 minutes.
  4. Grind or mash pulp: We used a blender, but you can also use an egg beater or mortar and pestle to turn the soaked paper into pulp.
  5. Hand mash and mix in nature treasures: This is the really fun part. Give everyone a bowl or bucket of pulp and welcome them to “really” mash and mix it up. Collect “flat” nature treasures with interesting colors and textures and add them to your pulp. This will make beautiful paper!
  6. Turn pulp to paper: Add water to the bowls of pulp. For small kids, we advocate simply laying out a frame on which to work. Kids can place and smooth around fistfuls of watery pulp on the frame to make paper. The other option is to pour watery pulp into a basin or pan. Place the bit of screen on the bottom of the pan and move it back and forth until a nice layer of pulp collects on the screen, making the new paper.
  7. Get the water out: Place layers of newspaper and absorbent cloth (towel, wool blanket, etc) under and over your paper/screen. Using your flat hands, pat it until water comes out. Replace newspaper and cloth and use a rolling pin to get even more water out and press the paper.
  8. Wait: Perhaps the hardest step of all. Place your screens of new paper in the sun and wait for them to really dry. Once they are really dry, gently peel them from the screen.
  9. Make new art: The texture and lovely look of the paper makes it a nice medium for new projects. Our girls enjoyed using natural paint and potato prints to design on their paper. They also glued the edge scraps to paper make new pictures. My piece? I cut it up and used the 6 resulting squares for teacher gift tags.
  10. Optional: You can add a bit of liquid starch to make the paper easier to draw on (markers will bleed far less) or you can dip the paper into gelatin and water as a final step…but that means even more waiting.

Why is this activity great for kids?

Ripping paper, wielding a rolling pin and squeezing paper pulp through their fingers are incredible ways to sharpen both children's senses and fine motor skills.

By doing the making outside, we can not only enjoy the mess, but also incorporate plant materials, turning paper-making into its own art form. Both comfort with messy processes and experience with dappling in a wide variety of materials help kids become more creative people.

When kids participate in each step of turning old drawings into new paper, they experience recycling from beginning to end (or new beginning). This act of transforming materials offers a great way to practice the transforming schema, an important behavior pattern associated with early childhood development. There is really no better way to concretize both the process and the concept of recycling for kids, helping them to become good stewards of the planet.

Finally, the practice of letting go of old, treasured works of art can start to help kids to let go of a whole host of trappings that could, literally and figuratively, weigh them down in life. What a fun, reverent and beautiful way to plant the seed that we and our paper should keep reinventing ourselves.

Do This Activity In A Class

Expert led
Classes are led by well-trained, certified, and supported leaders from your community.
Come together with like-minded community members and same-aged children.
Kids build foundational cognitive, social and emotional, and physical skills with an expert-designed curriculum.
Not in Virginia?

Do It Yourself

We think all families should be learning outside. Try this activity with your child and begin to see the power in outdoor, play-based learning. Have fun!

Email it to me