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Sift through the garbage and turn trash into toys


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 22, 2001

Don't toss that cereal box. Hold on to those Ziploc plastic bags. And even keep the McDonald's bag -- the one without the ketchup smears.

Your everyday trash can easily be turned into toys and books your children will love. Kids like to make stuff. But what's better than making art projects that crowd the book shelves or refrigerator is making toys that they can then go play with. They have twice the fun.

That cereal box can be turned inside out, decorated and then strapped to their back with ribbon for collecting nature on a walk around the block. The Ziploc bags are the pages of a book they create by drawing their own pictures, picking them out of a magazine or taking them with a camera. And the McDonald's bag -- add it to other bags collected from fast-food restaurants, string them together with yarn and your toddler has a book he can "read" all by himself by naming the familiar logos.

"Just take an item before you throw it away and say: "Is there anyway my child might have fun with this or learn from it?' " said Ginny Millett, a child care trainer for the Hillsborough County schools. "All my neighbors know I'm the bag lady, and they give all their stuff to me."

Millett is a cross between Santa Claus, Martha Stewart and an environmentalist. She even leads workshops to teach others how to apply a crafty touch to recycled trash and give kids something they'll enjoy. She knows more than 80 toys you can make with everyday household trash.

Melissa Manspeaker, director of Palms of Largo Learning Center, teaches other teachers how to help children make their own books. The fast food bag book is one of her suggestions.

"When you say: "Oh, you can read the book you made all by yourself,' they are so proud of themselves," she said. You can do the same by binding cereal boxes together because children can recognize the names by the designs.

She also has children create a book based on a theme. Go around taking pictures of shoes then put them in a book. Children love to go back and remember who went with which shoes.

Puppets are another toy children enjoy making. Vonnie Klein, a parent educator with the Pinellas County schools, teaches parents and teachers how to communicate with their kids through puppets they make themselves. Some old socks, fabric glue and a bucket of lace, felt and yarn lets them create anything they can think of.

"I just throw all the stuff on the table and tell them to make what they want. If you do a sample of a snake they'll all do snakes," Klein said. "If I just let them go, one will make a frog from a green sock, Barney from a purple sock."

Klein also suggests picking up stuffed animals at yard sales for a quarter each, then cutting a hole in the back for your hand. If you sew a loose cloth around the opening, you can keep the stuffing in but still have room for your hand to move the animal around. Don't let children play with it if there is loose stuffing coming out.

"Even when they see the parents attached to the puppet they will still talk to the puppet. It's still a different person to them," she said. "A child will talk to a puppet when they won't talk to a parent or teacher. Let your child take a puppet into Time Out and they'll tell the puppet why they did what they did."

Puppets are also great for reading books. Children may tire faster with Mom or Dad, but a funny puppet can say things to bring them back to the story. Even more so if that puppet is one they helped make.

"If they feel like they've made it, it's so much more a part of them," Millett said. "Even if they are little and they just make a few marks on it they think they did most of the work."

Here are some of Millett's many ideas for toys from trash:

Decorate two toilet paper tubes, tape them side by side and loop a ribbon through them, and your child has made binoculars.

Cut up an old plastic or vinyl place mat into puzzle pieces, and your child has a new puzzle. Goodwill usually has them for a dime or so each. You can do the same with pictures from an old wall calendar.

Stuff empty milk cartons with newspaper to give them some weight. Cover them with sticky white contact paper and let your children turn them into houses, stores, schools etc. by drawing windows, doors, flowers and more on them. You can create a whole town for toy cars, dolls or animals to visit.

Make a book by putting pictures inside Ziploc bags or stringing plain paper together. You can use a grocery bag with handles on it for the front and back so the book is easy to carry around. Millet picks up travel brochures wherever she goes because kids love making books about Disney World or Sea World. Babies will love a book filled with pictures of other babies cut out from magazines.

Hang things with smooth edges around a shower curtain ring such as empty Scotch tape dispensers, and your baby has a new rattle.

Cover an old laundry detergent box that has a handle with contact paper. Your child can decorate it and make a pocket book or lunch box. This makes another good treasure box for collecting nature from the yard.

To turn a cereal box into a backpack, cut one side open, turn it inside out then tape that side and the bottom back up. Add contact paper, straps and decorate.

Cut a long rectangle out of the side of a round oatmeal canister. Turn it upside down, and you have a tunnel for toy cars to go under. (I can remember cutting an opening in an oatmeal box, filling it with fabric scraps and making a doll cradle that actually rocks.)

Tie long ribbons or tape strips of colored comics to the end of a paper towel roll. Your toddler can develop gross motor skills running around the yard waving it in the air.

Cut a slit in the plastic lid of a coffee can. Give your toddler different colored smaller lids from juice and milk bottles. He will enjoy pushing them in the can, shaking it around then taking the lid off and starting over. For older children, tape paper around the can. Let them decorate it and make a piggy bank.

Save up those small cereal boxes, which have matching fronts and backs. Cut them up and your child can play concentration or other card games.

Make a game out of an egg carton and cotton balls. Have your child fill each compartment by picking up cotton balls with salad tongs. Then move to clothespins. Then tweezers. This is great for fine motor skills. You can get colored pompoms and color the egg carton so your child can match the red ball in the red compartment, blue in the blue and so on.

Millet suggests avoiding staples in your toymaking whenever possible. If you have to use them, cover them well with tape.

Here's one more suggestion. My daughter's preschool gives out a great recipe for making your own Play-Doh. 2 cups flour. 1 cup salt. 2 tablespoons oil. 1 cup hot water. 4 teaspoons cream of tartar. (You'll find it with the spices.) Food coloring of your choice.

- You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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