On any given day in a certain preschool class at St. Mary’s Child Center, you might find small children wielding sharp tools and paintbrushes like tiny journeymen. They drill pilot holes in reclaimed wood to make a clubhouse, or paint flowers on sections of cardboard saved from shipping boxes or hot-glue bottle caps to old CD cases to make a train set. This is Christopher Nunn’s class, and his students, ages 3 to 5, are learning by doing.
They’re also internalizing the notion that creativity can find expression in the humblest of materials, and that reuse trumps recycling, hands down.
Nunn brings a repurposing ethos to every classroom project. His degrees in art and education serve him well at St. Mary’s — not to mention his experience as a graduate student in need of low-cost art supplies.
But keeping classroom costs low is just one incentive for creative reuse of other people’s castoffs. “There’s so much around us that has such richness that we can use as material,” he says. “The kids will ask, ‘What is this?’ We’ll talk about what its last life was. The best thing about reusing materials is that everything has its history. It’s bringing meaning of its own to the piece.
St. Mary’s is part of the IPS/Butler University Laboratory School, which is informed by the Reggio Emilia educational approach. Here teachers are seen as collaborators and co-learners with their students, and the school emphasizes investigative learning. The Reggio approach also champions an engaging learning environment — and this particular classroom is filled with stunning artistic pieces that could only come from the unfettered minds of the very young.
A prime example: During the study of botany, a bicycle wheel becomes an enormous dandelion, its spokes interwoven with strips of orange and yellow plastic newspaper bags. It boasts a cardboard tube stem and leaves made from newspaper colored by the children. Its seed pod is made out of a waste stream-escapee French fry basket; its roots are strings from a mop head.
When a donation of bright plastic lids and bottle caps from a recycling neighbor coincides with the study of colors, Nunn sets the children to sorting them by color. The class works on “color wheels” by affixing these recycle-rejects to appropriately circular objects: deli trays salvaged after a staff meeting, old Frisbees, that sort of thing.
Nunn keeps a “materials box” stocked with landfill refugees and found objects. It’s a never-ending source of inspiration for children and teacher alike. At any one time it might contain a hundred or so disparate items — game pieces, an odometer, plastic bottle tops, wood scraps, marker caps, beads, fabric pieces, cardboard tubes, rocks. “You name it, really anything I can find,” Nunn says. Much of the stuff comes from the Goodwill Outlet where wares are sold by the pound. Finding new lives for these end-of-the-line items is one of the things that delights him.
In his quest to give the children space to create their masterworks, he has reused his own art school canvases, as well as cheap thrift store paintings. “Reprime those babies and you’ve got a brand new canvas.”
Nunn is modest about the impact his efforts are having on the environment. “It’s only one classroom; we’re not diverting that much stuff from the landfill,” he says. And he typically doesn’t bring up environmental issues with the children, though there is a recycling project underway in the room. “Recycling isn’t one of my hot buttons,” he says. “To me it’s about the potential for reuse and the excitement that goes along with it.”
The reverberations are far reaching, when you consider the impact this excitement has on the 30-odd youngsters who pass through his door daily in three sessions. These children will never see “trash” in the same way again.
Ryan Flessner, who teaches at the school and whose children Abel, 5, and Adelyn, 3, are in Nunn’s class, regularly gets stopped in front of the recycling bin at home with protests like: “Dad, why are you recycling this — we can reuse this!”
The children’s mother, Courtney Flessner, adds, “Then there are days they go right to the recycling pile (after school) and take things out and start making things out of them.”
Nunn is slowly expanding his efforts and building relationships, both with material sources and other teachers. A studio artist provides stacks of cardboard, and industrial businesses like a Greenwood bottle manufacturer provide usable “waste” material, including cardboard barrels and tubes. His garage is stuffed to the gills with items waiting for reuse, many of which he passes along to his growing network of teachers. He embraces this new role as a “one-man freecycle.”
“I enjoy taking things from a factory that would otherwise go to the dump and distributing them to other teachers.”