10 Easy, Cheap Craft Projects Made Mostly From Stuff in Your Recycling Bin

A little boy works on making a robot out recycled materials.
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For a lot of parents, the words “easy craft projects” are an oxymoron that conjures up visions of frustrated children needing help at every turn, complicated instructions, pieces that just won’t stay in place and finished products that look nothing like the example shown in the photo. After spending $15 on supplies, your kitchen table’s a wreck, your kids are disappointed, they’re ready for something else to do and Mom or Dad didn’t even have a chance to reply to one work email.

Well, forget about the beaded dream catcher that caused nightmares and the paper taco that looked more like a mashed banana. The Penny Hoarder’s “No Rules, Just Create” art projects are made mostly from things you have around the house and will keep your children ages 6 to 10 busy for at least an hour without any help from you.

And, some of these creations become toys they can play with later or give to a younger sibling.

  • There are no possible mistakes when a child creates a 6-foot-long mural of an underwater world with paint, crayons, milk jug lids, fabric scraps and magazine photos.
  • Making a town from cereal boxes and oatmeal canisters covered in construction paper only has to meet the design specifications of the young architect. Bottle caps make excellent windows. A take-out drink carrier can be a sky tram.
  • Plastic tigers and giraffes will eat any kind of vegetation that budding zoologists place in their zoo made of box lids and popsicle sticks.

Here are some tips and simple guidance for giving your kids the materials and mindset they need.

First Up, Gather Supplies

Recycled and Recyclable Items

Spend about a week tossing empty containers and boxes into a few paper grocery bags instead of the recycling or garbage.

  • Hold on to things such as milk cartons and lids, shoe boxes, boxes holding frozen entrees, the plastic tray holding the actual food, takeout containers, takeout drink carriers, takeout condiment containers, straws, cereal boxes, juice boxes and tall paper cups.
  • Think outside your kitchen. Save the plastic container razors come in, toothpaste boxes, toothpaste lids, empty makeup containers and fabric softener sheets.
  • Size doesn’t matter. Even the little box holding batteries or a take-out salad dressing container can become a chimney in a cardboard town in a what or food trough in a box lid zoo.
  • Gather up paper. Stash magazines, junk mail, newspapers and any other paper you’d normally recycle as sources of photos to glue onto creations.
  • Hold onto hand-me-downs. Go through closets and if there’s something your kids or you don’t wear anymore that’s not in good enough condition to donate or sell, stuff it in another bag.If you have fabric scraps, gather those, too.
Elmers glue sits sideways with glue coming out and hidden wooden sticks.
Glue and popsicle sticks are just a few things kids can use to make creative projects. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Supplies to Buy if You Don’t Have on Hand

  • Markers
  • Elmer’s glue (This holds better than glue sticks.)
  • Glue sticks
  • Multi-colored construction paper
  • Box of popsicle sticks
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Roll of easel paper
  • Plastic animals. It’s not essential, but is more fun to have a set that has two of the same animals. Here’s a set of 54 for $13.45 on Amazon.
  • At least two rolls of clear tape
  • Aluminum foil
  • Modeling clay or Play-Doh
  • Glue gun and glue sticks if your child is old enough to use one, but this isn’t essential.

Nature to Collect

Walk through your neighborhood, school yard or city park for the following bits of nature.

  • Rocks, pebbles and gravel in various sizes and colors, about a cup of each
  • Mulch, about a cup or two
  • Weeds
  • Sticks
  • Sand
  • Shells
  • Leaves

10 Cheap Craft Projects Kids Will Dive Into

Whatever project below you pick for your children to try first, tell them to make it how they want it, and it doesn’t have to look like anything in reality. Say you aren’t going to look until it’s done because you want to be surprised. If something doesn’t work along the way, tell them to just try something else.

An underwater mural is on display outside in a backyard.
An underwater mural can be made using mixed media such as magazines, junk mail, fabric scraps, stickers, crayons and paint. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

1. Underwater Mural

Make a mural of mixed media using magazines, junk mail, fabric scraps, stickers, crayons, paint, bottle lids and nature to create an undersea world. Paint or color a piece of 6-foot-long piece of easel paper in different shades of blue and green.

Cut actual photos of sea life out of magazines and/or find a cool pattern in a picture of clothes, art or home decor  and cut a creature out of that. Draw the creature on the paper or fabric before you cut them if you want. Draw or cut out real or imagined creatures. Glue or tape them to the paper.

2. Cruise Ship Mural

Depending on your child’s age, an adult might want to draw a cruise ship on a six-foot-long piece of easel paper. Draw a long oval, with horizontal lines dividing it into three or four decks and add a couple tall, round smokestacks on the top. Kids can add port holes, bigger windows, flags, swimming pools, life preservers, people and more by drawing them or cutting out shapes or photos from magazines, construction paper, fabric or aluminum foil. They can make rows of railings by taping popsicle sticks across the top deck.

Paint or color water around the ship and add some marine life by drawing or glueing accents.

3. Farm

For this farm, If you have bigger plastic horses, use grocery store or liquor store boxes, if you want to make a rescue farm for those same zoo animals use shoe boxes.

Make the boxes into stables by taping smaller boxes to the “floor” of the bigger boxes to create smaller stalls. Make fences for each stall out of popsicle sticks by taping two sticks between two vertical sticks, then add a third vertical stick in the middle. Lean or tape this against the boxes used to form the stall. Use smaller boxes and popsicle sticks similarly to create jumps and a ring to hold the animals next to the stables.

Add troughs from condiment containers or other boxes covered in aluminum foil inside the stables and the ring. Fill troughs with leaves and weeds. Tie dried grass together in small bunches to make hay using string or pipe cleaner.

4. Outer Space Mural

Make a mural of mixed media using aluminum foil, magazines, junk mail, fabric scraps, stickers, crayons, paint, bottle lids, and nature to create life on another planet. Kids can draw or cut out what they imagine houses, cars, inhabitants and nature look like on their planet.

5. Boat Parade

Remove lids or cut out one side of boxes so they are open and can hold passengers such as dolls, plastic animals, people etc. Cover the boxes with construction paper and add decorations such as stripes and boat names.

Make flags for the back of boats by taping fabric or colored paper to a straw or pipe cleaners.

A boxed lid zoo is on display outside on a picnic table. Plastic safari animals are also shown such as a gorilla, zebra, giraffe and elephant.
A boxed lid zoo can be made using inexpensive zoo animals, popsicle sticks and a shallow box from a frozen dinner. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

6. Box Lid Zoo

Tape or glue popsicle sticks to the edges of a box lid. Kids can also cut one side out of a shallow box such as one that holds a frozen food entree. Fill each one with terrain such as rocks, mulch, grass or sticks. Make food troughs from takeout salad dressing containers, condiment containers and small boxes.

Fill them with leaves or other pretend food. Make trees out of pipe cleaners or real sticks and branches. Stick them in a ball of clay and glue that to the bottom of the box lid. Add animals.

7. Doll House

Use a glue gun to attach four big cardboard boxes with two side by side on the bottom and two side by side on the top with the open sides all facing out.

The boxes can be transformed into a kitchen, living room, dining room and bedroom for Barbies, small stuffed animals or those plastic zoo animals living together harmoniously. Cover different sized boxes with construction paper to create a refrigerator, stove, microwave, fireplace, table, chair, bed, TV sofa and more. Glue bottle tops and toothpaste lids to tables for dishes.

Create blankets and drapes from fabric scraps, fabric softener sheets or napkins. Draw windows, doors, artwork, bookshelves and TVs in frames on the insides of the boxes that are the walls. Or, cut out photos of all of the above from magazines and glue them to the walls. Cut out a pretty photo or picture of a painting and draw your own frame around it for artwork to hang on the walls.

8. Tree House Mural

Turn a 6-foot-long piece of easel paper vertically and kids can create a tall tree with their dream tree house at the top. The tall trunk can be painted or colored and include textures from nature, magazine photos or cloth. Add residents that might live in a tree like birds and bugs.

At the top draw a simple tree house with a flat floor and railing or a detailed one with windows, stairs, a rooftop lookout deck and all the bells and whistles. Again, accent it with drawing, magazine pics, fabric and anything else that sticks.

A city is displayed that was made out of boxes and cartons covered in paper and decorated with markers.
Kids can make a city from boxes and cartons covered in paper and decorated with markers, magazine photos and stickers to create doors and windows. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

9. Your Town, U.S.A.

Make a city from boxes and cartons covered in paper then decorate with markers, magazine photos and stickers to create doors and windows. Combine two boxes to become one building. They can be placed on a long sheet of easel  paper that can be decorated to have roads, parking spaces and parks. Add model cars to the town.

For taller boxes, put something heavy like a stapler, rock or paperweight inside it so they don’t tip over.

10. Tropical Island Mural

Draw a curve across the bottom of a sheet of 6-foot-long easel paper and color or paint it to look like sand. Glue real sticks and leaves or photos found in magazines to create palm trees and other lush vegetation.

Cut fabric or paper and glue hammocks between the trees. Draw or cut out photos of rocks and water to add waterfalls. Draw or cut out images of huts, animals and tropical flowers.

Katherine Snow Smith is a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder.