By CELA on 1 Jun, 2020

Early childhood educators have always been masters of reusing and repurposing materials – it’s how we make ends meet with tight budgets. Upcycling takes this thrifty and sustainable trend a step further, boosted by the rise of ‘Loose Parts Play’.

The term ‘upcycling’ was first used in 2002 and the most succinct definition is ‘the reuse of objects or materials to create a product of higher value or quality than the original.’ So the idea is that you’re going a step further than re-use and actually re-imagining or transforming the original material into something even better.

Amplify discovers inspiring examples of early childhood services embracing upcycling in creative ways.

How to get started with upcycling

The first thing KU sustainability manager Deb Watson advises is, “Start reducing what you think you need, repurpose (old packaging, jars, containers), multi-use materials. For example, when looking for ‘loose materials’ for play, you can invite parents to bring in materials – tiles leftover from home renovation can be used to decorate into coasters or plaques, or be broken up to make mosaics.

In Deb’s view, the key to success is having a creative mindset.

Ask yourself: What if we used this to make one of these, I wonder what this could be? This type of creativity is the very disposition we want to encourage in our children, it’s about exploring what is possible with what we already have.

Donated milk bottles become hanging gardens

KU Petersham preschool director, Kathy Lawton, says their upcycling journey started by noticing all the plastic packaging children had in their lunch boxes. “We talked about how we could minimise the plastic, we counted items we could reuse and which we would need to discard.

The staff were keen to revamp their outdoor area, in keeping with sustainability principles and on a tight budget.

“This coincided with media stories about recycled waste being rejected by China, so we had lots of images of huge pallets of waste hanging in the air with cranes with nobody wanting them. We started making links between what was happening in the world, and what was happening in Petersham. And how important it was for us to minimise our plastic.”

In discussing with staff how they could reduce plastic going to landfill in their centre, one KU staff member said they had seen an idea on Pinterest about upcycling plastic milk bottles, one of the ideas was a hanging garden. Parents responded so enthusiastically to the call out for plastic bottles that they were inundated – and incorporated excursions to the local ‘Return & Earn’ container collection centre.

“We worked out our own design for cutting the milk bottles into a container so that a plant would grow,” says director Kathy Lawton. “It’s actually fairly shallow, so we had to think about what could grow that would survive, and where to hang them so they would get enough sun – we decided succulents were ideal.”

At KU Chester Hill they use 2-litre milk bottles as watering cans – simply perforate the caps to make holes (they’re the perfect size for young children). They turn old jars into vases and Pringles chip containers into paintbrush holders.

“We had an old pallet leftover from something that was delivered,” said centre director Jennifer O’Dowd. “The children used it as a stage, as a seating area for reading, or a puzzle area. This prompted us to explore with the children what else we could do with pallets. We discovered that when you stand a pallet up, it can hold things – so we use one pallet now as a broom holder.”

Unwanted items create endless possibilities

Jennifer enlisted her husband and with their ute, they scoured the local industrial area for more ‘as new’ hardwood pallets (they last longer than the pine ones).

“We also looked up online about how else to use pallets, and we saw them being used as a bookshelf. The children related to that and asked if we could make one. One staff member stayed back after hours and cut a pallet into quarters with a hand saw. They nailed a piece of timber on the bottom to hold the books in place, then drilled it onto a wall outside. It makes a display so you can see the front covers of the books.”

KU Chesterhill staff also asked nearby shops to donate excess milk crates and turned them into seating – by adding padding of leftover astroturf. The children also use them to hold things and to stack on each other.

“When we were out collecting pallets one day I saw a wooden empty cable roll, which looked full of possibilities. I took it back and just put it in the yard to see what the children would make of it,” explains Jennifer.

“They put it on its side and asked for help to roll it along, they tried putting it in the sandpit, they laid it flat and used it as a table – which it’s ideal for.”

In Canberra Forrest Out of School Hours Care (FOOSHC) has taken loose parts to play a notch further and in collaboration with their local resource recovery centre have created an outdoor loose parts play area with a difference. The children are trained by staff to use a range of tools safely and they collaborate in groups to make cubbies, forts and whatever they like.

The opportunities for creativity are endless when it comes to upcycling

“Once a fortnight we pick up used materials – ranging from old doors, tyres, ladders, air conditioning tubing, old trampoline mats etc,” says FOOSHC director Ali Sewter. “ Our arrangement is we will return any items when we are finished with them. We also ask families and the school to donate any large recyclable items to contribute.”

More than just a trend

Brendan Hyndman from Charles Sturt University wrote about this trend to use loose, recycled or scrap parts in play in The Conversation, describing it as children using, ‘movable equipment to work cooperatively in different team roles to design, plan, construct, observe, negotiate and learn from each other to discover new ideas to solve problems.’

Hyndman found evidence for the benefits of this kind of play in primary schools:

“Australian research has found the introduction of everyday equipment into outdoor school spaces has resulted in significant increases in primary school students’ physical activity intensity during active play, step countstypes (and complexity) of play, physical quality of life, and enjoyment …”

Upcycling is a new trend very much in keeping with the ethos and principles of best practice early childhood education. It fosters creativity, collaboration and problem-solving while also saving money and reducing waste – be inspired to upcycle.

Further inspiration

Resource centres in your state


Reverse Garbage – Marrickville

Loose Parts Play info and workshop

Early Learning groups workshops


Recycling Discovery Hub – Hume

Scroll down for early childhood resources


Green Collect

Urban Upcycle – Grovedale

Both Run Kindergarten incursions – Green Collect includes an ‘upcycling’ challenge for children to creatively explore ways to make new items from old.


Reverse Garbage Queensland – Wooloongabba

Run Loose Parts Playgroup and Workshops for educators


Remida Re-use Centre, Leederville, Perth

STEAM Creative Workshops


It’s Not Garbage – creative play resources Camden Park

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Guild Insurance

CELA’s insurer of choice. Protecting Australian businesses and individuals with tailored insurance products and caring personal service.