Creative Reuse in the Classroom: Waste as a Valuable Resource to Developing 21st century Learning & Life Skills in Children

The value of the arts to children’s learning, growth and development is undeniable. Significant research points to the fact that children who receive an arts-rich education are at a competitive advantage than their peers who do not. Sustained engagements with art helps develop valuable skills and attitudes such as the ability to pose questions, test ideas, apply judgment, take creative risks, solve artistic problems, think flexibly and divergently, and deal with ambiguity¹. Art also fosters the development of creativity, a critically important skill for success in the 21st century. Furthermore, engagements with art boosts student self-confidence. And, art offers a space within which children can explore new ideas, advance their thinking, and apply the insights gained towards their own art making.

In spite of its many contributions, art is often considered secondary within the school curriculum. To understand why, it’s important to recognize and deconstruct popular, yet restrictive views associated with the arts in education. For example, instead of viewing the arts as a necessity for all, the notion of talent restricts who has access to the arts. Talent-based art programmes that focus on imparting concrete art-making skills, are restrictive in their teaching of a particular way of drawing or painting (or working through any other art form), and often cater to only those children that display an inclination and fit pre-conceived ideas of talent. Notions of fun and leisure on the other hand diminish the educational value of the arts, relegating it to one-off activities that temporarily relieve stress from the rigorous curriculum. Such narratives assigned to art, often justify its omission when other school subjects require more attention, which in turn ensures its marginalization. To counteract these narratives, an alternative approach to arts education is needed—one that demonstrates the significant contributions that art makes to children’s growth and development.

ArtSparks Foundation² has been approaching arts education with a focus on the process of art-making, and the valuable learnings embedded within this process. We recognize that when learning interventions in the arts are designed to trigger investigation of materials, discovery of unique possibilities, ideation of multiple artistic solutions, prototyping, reflection, refining, and much more, students are motivated to learn, and they naturally acquire the skills and attitudes needed to get the work done. Once mastered these 21st century learning and life skills such as investigation, creative problem solving, collaboration, etc., transfer over to other domains of work and life. ArtSparks is now beginning to also reflect upon the materials used for art-making. By designing interventions that turn to waste materials as a valuable learning resource, bursting with possibilities, that needs diverting away from landfills, we’re beginning to explore cultivating environmental literacy and responsibility in the children we serve. This aligns well with our overarching goal of fostering the development of 21st century learning and life skills in children.

How does this all unfold in the classroom? When a group of 7th graders embarked on a 3-month long sculptural project, the goals of the project were clearly defined at the start. More than just a narrow focus on the creation of a self-standing sculpture using recyclable waste materials, the broader goals of the unit were defined as developing within students 8 distinct skills and attitudes as they worked through the process of creation, namely, problem solving, flexible thinking, investigation, creative risk-taking, attention to detail, perseverance, collaboration, and communication.

Translated into the classroom, these 7th graders could be seen transforming the everyday recyclable materials, testing the possibilities that lay within them, repurposing them. Students could also be seen working in groups, researching clothing through the ages, while collectively ideating multiple imaginative solutions, eventually coming to a shared consensus as they embarked on designing a new brand of futuristic clothing. Groups of students deliberated and considered concepts such as balance as they attempted to overcome challenges and failures in their journey towards creating strong base armatures for their sculptures. The ability to try new things even when the outcomes were uncertain, think divergently when the need arose, communicate effectively both as they spoke with and listened to one another, and persevere over a length of time, were all evidenced as the students worked. A major outcome of working with waste materials, evidenced in the students, was a growth in environmental consciousness as they recognized the creative possibilities for reuse embedded within these materials. Students subsequently played an integral role in sourcing these materials from their communities, and re-routing them into the classroom.

At a time when art finds itself in a precarious position, on the brink of being pushed out of schools, despite its many contributions, it’s imperative to reframe the value of art in the context of education. An emphasis on how art plays a critical role in enhancing children’s capabilities, shaping their behaviours and attitudes, stimulating awareness about the world around them and their role in it, all supported by tangible evidence of the same, is the only way forward. Anything less would be a disservice. 

¹ Eisner, E. (2004). The arts and the creation of mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

² ArtSparks Foundation is an educational organization that supports the development of 21st century learning and life skills in children through the medium of visual art and design. ArtSparks also supports the professional development of teachers, encouraging them to reflect on teaching practice, and explore new ways to enrich student learning.

Nisha Nair


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