One of my goals for barley & birch has always been to make creative learning projects with simple, earth-friendly supplies that are accessible to anyone. Over the years, I’ve developed a few green-crafting habits that have completely changed the way I approach kids’ arts & crafts. As a designer and artist myself, I’ve actually found so much freedom in trying out alternative supplies and working with what I have rather than buying exactly what I *think* I need.
If you’ve been looking for ways to make your kids’ crafting more eco-friendly, want to green your art classroom, are hoping to save a little money, or are simply interested in trying some new processes, this collection of ideas is for YOU!
Whether you put one into practice or embrace them all, I hope you find the eco-friendly kids’ craft tips useful, and if you have any favorite tips of your own, be sure to share them in the comments below!
1. Use natural materials
Nature provides us with the most wonderful seasonal inspiration and FREE art & craft supplies we can gather from our own backyards. As a bonus, you can build supply-gathering into your daily schedule or the activity. It’s the perfect way to get your kids outside – stretching, relaxing, observing with purpose – throughout the year.
Summer’s full plants and flowers are the star supply for one of our most popular projects – hammered nature process art. Take advantage of fall foliage with projects like our gradient leaf banners, collect winter treasures to make into a mini winter sensory garden. Spring is a wonderful time to get outside and pick up fallen sticks for tissue paper and twig spring flowers or fresh blooms for straw and play dough fairy forests.
Instead of your usual art & craft supplies, mix up your routine by trying a project that uses one of these natural materials…
- Twigs & sticks
- Rocks & stones
- Shells & sea glass
- Pinecones & nuts
- Tree slices or driftwood
- Dry Beans or corn
- Plants & succulents
- Moss & bark
- Dirt, sand, or clay
Younger kids might enjoy using these materials with loose parts, creating simple arrangements, or covering them with splatters of colorful paint. For older kids, you can dive into the history of natural art materials and begin to deeply explore using them to make art in different ways.
2. Save and reuse fabric and paper scraps
I’ve been a serial scrap hoarder since my days in college art classes. Supplies like cardstock and watercolor paper are insanely expensive, and I often remember working on half or quarter-pages of paper to save the expense of buying a new pad.
Experimentation and mistakes are such an important part of art and craft-making, I have a really hard time limiting kids (or myself!) to just one or two sheets of paper. Enter SCRAPS! I have boxes and bins of every kind of scrap – fabrics, felts, papers, and projects. “Mistakes” of all kinds find their way into my scrap collection and have been the basis of some of my very favorite b&b projects.
Our memory mapping scavenger hunt, torn paper landscapes, ghost art, cardboard necklaces, cardboard and scrap paper Christmas tree, and scrap stamp collages all started with a rummage through the scrap bin. For even more ideas, visit all of our paper projects.
3. Make functional art
As a designer, I have a special place in my heart for art that can be played with or used beyond just hanging on the wall or sitting on a tabletop. Art that serves a purpose isn’t just useful – it’s a reminder that there is magic in everyday items. We begin to see them as things that can be playful and inspire creativity.
As a big believer in the educational power of play for adults and kids alike, I use the term “functional art” in a pretty broad sense. My definition of functional arts and crafts includes anything that can be used for learning (think math or engineering!) used as toys or play props, or made into wearable costumes or accessories.
Incorporating art into everyday use is so important to me, I’ve put together a collection of over 40 kids functional art projects you can explore and make together.
4. Use recycled art & craft supplies or found objects
Believe it or not, right this very second you probably have some of the very best kids’ craft materials sitting in your trash or recycling bin. Save that juice bottle – you can turn it into a painted flower vase! Upcycled egg cartons and jar lids to make actual floating baby ducklings or whales! Cardboard tubes and boxes are essential city or castle building materials, and plastic bottle caps can be turned into a set of wheels/headlights for artful DIY city vehicles or cardboard snowplows.
For uber-creative upcycling inspiration check out artists like Veronika Richterová, Bordalo II, Angela Yuen, Max Liboirion, or Aurora Robson (her collaborative color wheel project would be a fun one to try in a classroom or neighborhood!)
My own favorite recycled supplies include…
- Cereal Boxes
- Bottes & cartons
- Paper cups
- Bottlecaps & lids
- Paper rolls
- Egg cartons
- Small Tins
- Takeout containers
- Magazine pages
- Cans & jars
- Scrap Wood
You can see great examples of almost ALL of these supplies being put to use in our collection of favorite upcycled modern dollhouse DIYs. The creation of little houses and habitats is one of my very favorite design & play activities and always seems to be a homerun with kids.
Be sure to save at least one BIG cardboard box you can use for storage, because once you start using these outstanding supplies, you’ll start seeing recycling opportunities EVERYWHERE.
5. Commit to stop using a couple of “worst offenders”
Though I try to keep things as eco-friendly as I can, there are a few very specific craft supplies I’ve purchased without consideration for the impact they have on our environment. Some have been easy to swap out, or are fairly low-impact, but I’m stuck with a couple that are pretty terrible (I’m looking at you, foam sheets!).
So I’ve started a list of kids’ craft supplies to actively avoid buying and using. This collection of “worst” offenders” includes:
- Glitter (due to the impact of the microplastics on our oceans and riverbeds)
- Foam sheets (due to the vinyl/PVC)
- Polymer clay (due to the vinyl/PVC)
- Spray paint (due to the VOCs)
The GOOD news is that you can typically find eco-friendly alternatives to most of these on our eco-friendly craft supply list. You can also try making your own DIY glitter at home (bonus: it’s taste-safe!).
You can also try to weed out other plastics where you can. Instead of using plastic crafting supplies like perler beads or plastic jewels, try wooden or glass versions that will break down or can be recycled or reused.
6. Invest in materials you can use over and over again
Felt, sea glass, wooden beads, mother-of-pearl shell buttons, cabochons – these are some of my go-to craft supplies when planning craft projects. Materials made out of wood or glass provide wonderful color and texture, and are also sturdy enough to be taken off finished crafts and reused for new ones. Some of the projects we made with our leaf activity kit provide good examples of our own reuses.
Felt is another material I always have on hand. It can be cut into any shape, and used with velcro (I prefer this snag-free kind) to create moveable, re-usable pieces. Our DIY felt counting tree project gives you an idea of the flexibility simple felt scraps offer.
7. Support and follow eco-friendly artists and kids crafters
So I’ve already given you quite a few ideas for (inexpensive!) eco-friendly supplies, but now…what to do with them…? Fear not, beyond our own eco-friendly kids crafting ideas, I have a list of friends who go above and beyond to create the coolest kids’ projects with recycled materials…
- Katja of Honigkukuk (and on Instagram)
- Mary-Alice of Brainy Beginnings (and on Instagram)
- Susie of Handy With Scissors (and on Instagram)
- Tara of Little Pine Learners (and on Instagram)
- Yvonne of Skoy.de (and on Instagram)
- Estefie Machado (and on Instagram)
- Kathryn of Cardboard Folk on Instagram
- Julia Arttack on Instagram
You can help support the work of these amazing green creators by giving them a follow on Instagram, liking and sharing their projects on social media (it really helps spread the word!) subscribing to their email lists, or purchasing their resources.
Have some favorites of your own? Be sure to share them in the comments! I’m always on the lookout for clever eco-friendly kids’ craft ideas!
8. Cultivate and promote a sense of intention and slow-crafting
Hop onto Facebook or Instagram at any given time and you’re guaranteed to scroll past a video packed with 5-minute craft ideas. Easy, quick arts & crafts definitely have a place in my own inspiration arsenal, but more often than not, the 5-minute makes seem to miss the point for me.
From what I’ve witnessed, all of the best kinds of learning happens when kids are given an opportunity to slow down and discover the joy in the process. Emphasis on process over project encourages investigation, exploration, and ultimately instills greater confidence and value in their own work.
9. Make impermanent art and experiment with digital art
We are so lucky to live in a time when it’s so easy to document our work with a picture or video or make a quick little sketch on an iPhone with our finger! Especially in the past couple of years, I find taking quick snaps of my art projects usually satisfies the need to “document” the work, instead of hanging on to every last little sketch and art experiment.
If you have a smartphone or tablet, free apps like Paper or Tayasui Sketches bring the power of endless art tools to your literal fingertips. Both apps are incredibly intuitive, and a fun way for kids to experiment with mark-making for the digital age. They’ll also save you a load of money in art supplies (and don’t take up any physical space at all!).
When it comes to screen-free impermanent art, it doesn’t get more classic than good old sidewalk chalking (visit our chalk “spray paint” messages of love for a unique way to explore the concept of guerrilla art with kids!)
For more impermanent art ideas try…
- Building a sculpture or drawing patterns in sand (for impressive inspiration, check out the work of Andres Amador!).
- Use loose parts to create temporary arrangements, as we did for our loose parts leaf play activity.
- Make some edible art, or experiment “drawing” in ice with salt and food coloring.
- Gather nature materials and make some land art in the style of artist Andy Goldsworthy.
- Make your own set of temporary scrap paper quick collages.
- Curate temporary collections to photograph while learning about color and composition. Richard Lang & Judith Selby Lang‘s plastic collections from California beaches are a good reference to help kids visualize the process.
10. Use recycled plastic or glass containers to store supplies and paints
Food containers and plastic waste can be incorporated into kids crafts, but they’re also incredibly handy storage containers! Here are few different junk items I like to save and repurpose…
- Glass baby food or jam jars can be used to hold pencils, scissors buttons & more, store mixed paint, or use for paintbrush rinsing.
- I love saving plastic food containers of all different sizes to store loose crafting items like pom poms, feathers, pipe cleaners and more. They also come in handy for homemade playdough or colored rice storage.
- Round plastic deli containers are a great way to keep yarn and ribbon organized. Poke a small hole in the lid and pull the end through for a knot-and-tangle-free storage solution that is easy for kids to use.
- Plastic pill bottles are a great way to hold small items like seeds, nuts & bolts for loose parts play, googly eyes, etc.
- Large rectangular styrofoam or plastic take-out food containers are big enough to pack with all the supplies you’ll need for an art invitation or specific craft. Stuff with the necessary supplies and a printed tutorial or reference, label with a piece of tape, then save on a shelf for instant creative entertainment on a rainy day!
11. Turn old art into new projects
A few years ago we made these heart pennant pins from old art, and it’s a fantastic way to give old art new life and pass on the love. There are so very many GREAT reasons to recycle old art but one of the most compelling is that it releases you from the weight of having to save EVERYTHING.
12. Offset your crafting with a planted tree or children’s art garden
Help your kids plant a tree, make seed bombs (with local seeds) or start their own small pollinator garden! Combined with greener kids’ art and crafting habits, these collective actions all help to build a healthier world for the future. Teaching our kids early that the supplies we use have an impact on our environment is essential. Encouraging them to take on a small outdoor project can instill a positive sense of self-responsibility and help to connect the dots to craft processes in a truly tangible way. You could even create a children’s craft garden to grow your own supplies!
Ideas for creating a children’s arts & crafts garden
- Plant a variety of colorful flowers and leafy foliage to use in crafts and art projects or for homemade paintbrushes.
- Try growing a vegetable or fruit you can grow then use for stamping and printing.
- Plant loofa seeds for sponge painting
- Dedicate a corner to mud, water, stick-collecting, and rocks. Mud is a wonderful natural paint, and sticks make great DIY paintbrush handles.
- Designate an area for outdoor art-making – a grassy section you can cover with a blanket, or a place where you can put a small table and chair.
- Incorporate a small compost pile where you can recycle natural art, cardboard, and paper.
- Set aside a bit of open “gallery” space for kid-made outdoor sculptures or nature art to be displayed.
- Let your kids design and decorate their green space with painted rocks or kid-made garden details.
- This fantastic collection of resources from Cornell University can help you successfully pick seeds, design, and even finance your own children’s art garden!
*A note about Amazon affiliate links: We strive to use simple, earth-friendly supplies that can be purchased locally whenever we can, but sometimes we find the best universally available options, a rare eco-friendly find, or a niche product only available on Amazon. When included in our supply list, these products are affiliate links, and if you click-through to make a purchase, we receive a small commission that helps us re-order these supplies!