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When it comes to art projects, I’m a big fan of form + function. For many many years now, one of my day jobs has been graphic design work. I consider myself pretty lucky because three-quarters of the time it’s a lot of work…but the other 25%…? Pure PLAY. You wouldn’t believe how much time I spend down on the floor folding up pieces of paper for packaging experiments, building out mini dioramas to see what a pattern-printed wall will look like, or scribbling fun little brand idea drawings out in colored pencil.
What I continue to learn from my own experience is that art, design, and play truly go hand-in-hand. And I mention all of this because, when it comes to planning kids’ projects for barley & birch, my first thought is almost always, “what will they be able to DO with this?” and then, “how can I make sure this feels like play?”
The beauty of functional art projects (for kids and adults alike) is that long after the actual “making of,” they become part of a larger hands-on art experience through use or play.
Since working on b&b, I’ve kept a list of people and projects I’ve found inspiring because they put the “fun” in functional art (three cheers for projects you can use or play with!) With so many of us at home and mostly indoors right now, I thought it was high time I shared some of my coveted favorites, so I put together a little collection (grouped by themes!) that you can use to find projects that will keep your littles busy long past the art and crafting is over.
Use the links below to jump straight to a specific topic of interest in this article…
Each of these lovely ideas reinforces the idea that art isn’t just made to hang on the wall – we can have just as much fun with the product as the process!
Looking for more ways to explore art with your kids at home or in a classroom? Pair these projects with our free printable kids’ art challenge and collection of 50+ kids’ art project ideas for a simple way to encourage art investigation and play!
Kids Functional Art Theme 1: Modern Classics
These kids’ art projects are four twists on classics that put the “fun” in “functional” and encourage creativity through sustainable supplies.
- Explore printing with DIY Vegetable-stamped market totes
- Craft a set of beautiful scrap paper bowls
- Make a simple, smudge-free chalk pastel rainbow pillow
- Recycle paper tubes into hen and chick treat boxes
Kids Functional Art Theme 2: Animal-Themed Crafts
Let out your inner art animal with this group of creative creatures that will have your kiddos playing all day!
- Build a play aquarium from recycled supplies with painted and paper-cut foliage
- Now that you have a play pet tank, fill it with cereal box lizards, climbing tree frogs, or clay sea slugs.
- Put together a recycled cardboard puppet theater
- Make your own painted carton bee pollen-collecting game.
Kids Functional Art Theme 3: Wearable Costume Art
Proudly wear your work with these four handmade costume ideas that use creative art processes and recycled supplies!
- Decorate your own kid-made superhero capes
- Cut up and paint a pizza box to make a lion mask
- Experiment with stamping butterfly masks
- Fly high with a paper bag butterfly costume
- How amazing is this Carmen Miranda mask? Experiment with making your own milk carton mask.
- Fashion-forward young creators will enjoy crafting their own modern geometric cardboard and scrap paper necklaces.
- Use recycled supplies to make a bubble-wrap stamped chameleon fascinator!
- Make flair you can wear with paper plate crowns.
Kids Functional Art Theme 4: Fantasy Play
Peg dolls, fairies, mermaids, and gnomes – this artistic quartet of crafts is perfect for puppet-making or small-world play.
- Craft a darling set of woodland peg doll fairies.
- Imagine adventurous discoveries with scrap fabric fantasy maps.
- Make adorable paper tube and egg carton gnome party invitations.
- Dip into a sea of art goodness with these dreamy egg carton mermaid dolls.
Kids Functional Art Theme 5: Pretend Play Food
Food glorious food! From coloring to cardboard cutting, these DIY pretend play food projects are great opportunities for artistic exploration that can be used over and over for dramatic play.
- Sew some simple DIY felt treats.
- Color-your-own cardboard market food.
- Top your own paper pizza!
- Celebrate fair food with paper mache food-on-a-stick.
Kids Functional Art Theme 6: STEAM Play
Need an escape? These 4 creative projects will fire up your kids’ imaginations and small-world-building skills...
- Build sugar cube castles then experiment with adding color in an exciting way!
- Construct an artist-inspired collaged building block castle.
- Engineer a recycled construction site.
- Build and decorate your own set of (working!) scrap wood toy cars and trucks.
Kids Functional Art Theme 7: Nature Exploration
This group of artful activities inspires kids to make something they can use to get outside and explore the natural world right outside their front door!
- Turn a shoebox into a pop-up nature science station with this DIY outdoor explorer kit.
- Light up the night with an art-lined upcycled kid-safe camp lantern.
- Build and decorate your own bug observation box from recycled supplies.
- Create collaged memory maps you can use for interactive outdoor scavenger hunts.
Kids Functional Art Theme 8: Artful Badges, Trophies, and Awards
If you’ve worked your way through all the projects on this list so far, YOU deserve an AWARD! Here are a few of our favorite handmade prizes for art-standing efforts!
- Create a set of art badges (with free printables!).
- Craft clay medals for the win!
- These kid-made beaded initials make stylish handmade awards.
- Declare yourself the functional art winner with an upcycled trophy.
Kids Functional Art Theme 9: Loose parts and Found Objects
Explore sewing with scraps, repurposing nature finds, and recycling loose parts with this mini medley of functional art projects!
- Grab some items from the scrap bin to make your own recycled percussion set.
- Turn scrap fabrics into an adorable one-of-a-kind squeezable softie.
- Discover the magic of repurposing nature finds when you make mixed media stick wands.
- Scrap paper, loose parts, and natural materials come together to create these whisical and expressive paper leaf stick puppets.
Kids Functional Art Theme 10: Medium Exploration
Looking to experiment with new art mediums and processes? Here are four fun functional art activities that will have your kids cheering for more!
- Make a lovely yarn and scrap fabric mobile with a meaningful function.
- Experiment with engineering and construction supplies for these scrap wood sculptures.
- Make your own set of process art play tiles for reuseable color, pattern, and design play!
- Make your own melted crayon butterflies.
Kids Functional Art Theme 11: Home and Habitat-Building
From the city to the country, these homes and habitats are STEAM-filled, upcycled stunners your kids can play with for days.
- A perfect project for young architects and designers – eperiment with textures for a stylish play mid-century modern shoebox house
- Build your own fold-out cardboard city landscape
- Raise a DIY recycled play barn
- Use colorful paper and cardboard to make a fold-out secret garden backdrop for play
- Recycled old boxes into a cardboard neighborhood.
- Make cardboard love shacks.
- Combine art and mindfullness – create miniature peace gardens to help kids learn five simple relaxation practices.
- Build the ice shanties of your great northern dreams!
Can’t get enough of this handmade goodness? Art-lovers will enjoy our list of 50+ amazing projects to help kids discover new art mediums (pair the projects with a book from our favorite art-themed picture books FTW!) And check out our list of 50 inventive ideas for a family movie & craft night,