Skip navigation

Family play activity – junk modelling

11 July 2022

Sometimes you can build a compelling day of play around what we usually throw away. Find out more about junk modelling.

What is it?

These days we live in a somewhat disposable culture, where households and businesses produce a lot of rubbish that often goes straight to the recycling bin. Junk modelling involves turning these items into art and is a great way to educate children about waste while also getting their creative juices flowing.

This sounds like a lot of hard work… Convince me it’s worth it!

  • This activity is better than free, as this allows you to make use of discarded items
  • If you’re not confident in your own creative skills this is a really quick and easy way to encourage your child to get crafty using easily accessible items, that requires no prior knowledge or skills on your part
  • This activity can also help with making grocery shopping more interesting for children, as they can think about the fantastic creations they’ll be able to make as you’re pulling the items from the shelves
  • The items you use can be recycled afterwards
  • Getting children to help sort through the recycling means you have to do less work yourself!


  • The only preparation you have to do for junk modelling is the same for how you would prepare for recycling… ensure items are clean and free of dirt or food. Don’t worry if you don’t have a recycling bin or regular collections, however, as almost any house contains plenty of items that can be used like toilet rolls, cereal boxes and boxes left over from mail deliveries
  • Another good source of materials is local shops. Grocers are a great source for smaller boxes while “white goods” stores selling items like fridges are fantastic for larger boxes, which often really wow younger children
  • That said, once you get the junk modelling bug it helps to have a box put to one side in which you can store your crafting materials – you’ll never throw a kitchen roll inner away again!
  • Aim for a variety of shapes and sizes of box or carton so that it stimulates the imagination and also aim for different thicknesses so, for example, some items such as cereal boxes can be ripped
  • Also aim to have some other essential crafting items on hand like safety scissors, string, wool and tape (more on that in the tips)

What are my children secretly learning? (don’t tell them!)

  • This is a great activity for physical development, with big movements developing “gross” motor skills and fiddly activities with tape and string developing finer motor skills
  • If you discuss their creations while they work, it can be the perfect way to develop speech and communication as well as imagination and expression
  • Using items which have different materials, properties and weights develops scientific and mathematical skills – for example you need something that’s not too heavy nor too light for a pirate ship mast. Let them try out all the options and make their own decisions to help them develop their assessment skills
  • Using scissors and blunt knives to cut and prepare the materials provides a great opportunity for children to learn about and manage risk while they’re supervised

Fisher-Price™ Play Lab says:

“Playing with recyclables and repurposing them really gives children an opportunity to use their creative skills. They can think about something, design and then build it… It’s all about exercising their creativity and their fine motor skills… and they’re recycling!”

Watch the video below to find out more.

Top Tips:

Here Pre-School Deputy Supervisor Kirsty Wagstaff from our Birchtree pre-school in Peterborough gives us a few do’s and dont’s regarding how to make the most of a junk modelling session:

  • Children will note they can rip or cut certain materials while others are too thick or strong. This is a good learning moment as it’s essentially science – teaching them about the different properties of various materials
  • Try to keep the lids off items like milk bottles and jam jars so you’ve got smaller bits and pieces for knobs, buttons and the like
  • Getting things to stick together is one of the most difficult aspects of junk modelling. You might think to use clear tape or glue to bind things together, but glue hardly ever sticks well enough and clear tape can be hard for children to see the ends of or tear themselves. We find the best tool for the job is masking tape, which is sticky enough as well as being quite easy to cut and tear for young children. It also contains no plastic, so it’s much better for the environment
  • But… PVA Glue is excellent for decorating, as it can be used to stick items to your decoration or mixed with glitter for a bit of pizzaz!
  • Paints and felt tip pens are also great for decorating If you have them to hand
  • When discussing your children’s activities try to help them develop their vocabulary by asking them specific questions – for example you might ask a child building a rocket about what their job is, launch pads, or ask then what planet they’re visiting
  • And don’t stop there…depending on what’s created you might be able to do some roleplay, pretending to go out to the jungle on safari
  • Although it’s good to let their imagination guide them that doesn’t mean you can’t help, as doing so promotes collaboration and sharing. For example, they might hold bits still while you do the sticking or taping
  • This activity can also teach resilience and problem solving, as sometimes things go wrong, and ideas don’t come together as planned. Encourage them to be persistent and work on alternative ways to solve a problem

Find out more about Creating Happy Memories through play and the benefits it can bring to your child’s development.