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Turning Junk into Educational Treasures

By June Oberlander
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #57, 2004.

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June Oberlander


Have you ever wondered why someone's trash can become another person's treasure? Yard or garage sales often confirm this. And so it is with a young child! We can discover how household discards or yard sale treasures can often become useful learning items for the young child.

Wonderful enriching experiences can be initiated with this type of collection. Items such as small bottle caps, toy pieces, plastic animals, badges, small wooden blocks, broken crayons, buttons, feathers, shells, various small rocks, prizes from Cracker Jack, colorful artificial flowers, etc. can be used to teach many skills. Read further to find out how.

The junk collection pieces may be stored in a sturdy shoebox or something comparable in size. Most young children delight in decorating the outside of the box with crayons, paints or with materials such as construction paper or macaroni pieces. Later, you and your child may want to give the box a name. My grandchildren call my box of junk "The Special Box."

A child can learn orderliness if he is encouraged to help collect the discards. After using the junk items, encourage the child to put them back in the "treasure box."

Identifying each item can aid in increasing the child's language skills. He can learn the name of each item and its former function. He can also learn the beginning sound of the named item that has been introduced to him. It sometimes may be appropriate to play rhymes with the named items. For example, a small ball may be obtained from the junk collection box. Words that rhyme with the word ball are call, fall, hall, etc. Your child may enjoy this activity and suggest nonsensical words. Accept what he suggests if it rhymes because it means he is aware of rhyming word sounds. This skill will help with learning to read.

Once your child has learned the names of most of the items, introduce a listening game by choosing 10 items from the special "junk box." Name an item and ask your child to select the item and give it to you. This teaches the child to listen, look, think, and react. Auditory, visual, problem solving, and fine motor skills have been exercised. This game may be enhanced if you increase the number of requested items to two. If the child asks you to repeat the names of the items, this may indicate that his listening skills need more refinement in locating just one item. A child must listen for the name, find it, and then name it. For some children, this is a challenge when the number of items is increased.

At another time this game may be played with different junk items. Increase the number of items to three for the child to locate. Later, the item number can be increased to four junk items. Some preschoolers may enjoy trying to remember even more items. This activity is also good training for short-term memory recall.

Many of the "junk box" items may be used for a counting activity. Begin this activity with no more than 10 items. Make sure that he selects and moves each item as he counts. Some preschoolers just say numbers as they count. They do not understand the correlation of the item as it is counted. Repetition is needed for proficiency.

These same junk items may be used to make sets of items. For example, make sets of two items, later three items, etc. It may confuse the child if you go beyond 10 items until he has mastered number concepts 1 to 10.

Concepts such as more than/less than, before/after, first/last, inside/outside, left/right, over/under, ordinal numbers, next to, beside, between, etc. may be taught with junk items. It is best to teach just one of these concepts in a given sitting.

Patterns may be formed with a choice of junk items. For example, a button, lid, and crayon may be put in a row, continued with another button, lid, and crayon and then only a button and lid are in the next part of the row of items. Ask the child what comes next. If he doesn't know what comes next, verbally name the items in order from left to right with the hope that the child can hear what he missed by looking. Correct and proceed with the same pattern. Introduce another pattern using different items or let the child choose what to use when the child seems to understand this concept.

Classification skills may be taught with junk pieces by sorting the items into groups of similar shapes, such as squares, circles, rectangles, triangles and ovals. Colors may be taught similarly, as well as animals, things that travel, or wood, metal, or plastic items. These same items may be used to play "I Spy." For example, I spy something in the shape of a circle or I spy something red, etc.

Patterning skills are a pre-requisite for spelling and reading. For example, a word such a CAT, CAT, CA- (what comes next?) is introduced in a pattern. Other simple words may be introduced in this manner. This will improve the skill of recognizing letters, identifying them, spelling the word, and then reading the simple word.

Most children delight in just exploring the junk items in the "special box." Many enjoy feeling (tactile and manipulating skills) the items. Some children may even smell various items, count, sort, place in rows, etc. independently. The possibilities are endless. Adults often learn many things by simply watching a child as he discovers and enriches his realm of creativity. Preschoolers discover early that someone else's discards can become his treasure box of learning materials.


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