Art, the Environment, and Upcycling By Anna Walcutt


Upcycled Play-Doh Flowerpots

Topic summary:

Upcycling, that is creating art as well as objects like flowerpots out of empty containers and used materials, helps decrease human-made trash. These craft projects are fun for all ages, and something that museum educators can easily incorporate into programs geared towards children and families.

The need for environmentally conscientious practices and re-use of materials are concepts that both kids and adults can understand. In addition, together kids and family members and/ or friends have the ability to help the environment through relatively simple actions, for instance upcycling. Programs with discussions and crafts facilitated by a museum educator also have the potential to encourage conversations about complex physical and socioeconomic concerns the participants face as well as environmental issues that broadly effect people across the globe. Examples might include, associating low-income families’ need for healthy food and safe housing, with the necessities required for the bears depicted in the painting (below), specifically forested areas, clean water, and food supplies.


This blog post is intended to enable museum educators to be better able to create and facilitate programs that spur diverse audiences to become advocates for environmentally conscious practices and policies.

Real-world examples:

Spark!Lab, Smithsonian American History Museum

  • A space designed for children 6 to 12 years old. Activities encourage children and families to be creative and collaborative while they participate in problem solving that nurtures exploring, testing, experimenting, and inventing skills.
  • ‘“With the current theme “Planet,” visitors engage in hands-on activities focused on building a planet-friendly building, helping clean up the ocean, moving water from place to place without pipes, testing renewable energy, powering up a solar tree, and “upcycling” e-waste (reusing discarded material to create a product of a higher quality or value than the original).”’

Earth Day Poetry Contest (yearly), Tucson, Arizona

  • Sponsored by the Coati Kids Club of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
  • For grades K-6.

ReDress: Upcycled Style

  • A Traveling Exhibition.
  • Eighteen of Nancy Judd’s enchanting couture fashion sculptures made from trash are traveling to museums and art centers around the United States.

Craft ideas: 

Egg Carton Flowers egg-carton-flowers-pin

Materials: egg carton (paper egg carton), paint ( acrylic craft paints suggested), paint brush, assorted beads, glue gun, cereal box (empty), green construction paper, scissors, glue stick, string. For information see:

Back to School Fun – Milk Carton School Bus Craft


For instructions and information see:

A beautiful discussion piece: 

Plastic Bottle Flowers

For more information see:

Brainstorming, planning, and critical thinking exercises for educators: 

Image and theme(s) analysis:

How might the imagery in the painting (Study for Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, 1861, SAAM) and the historical context be used for a 5th grade lesson on American (US) environmental history as well as present-day environmental issues?                             For a related lesson plan example see:

Practice scenarios for educators:

Summary of audiences: elementary school aged children (ca. 5-12) accompanied by adult family and/ or friends.

Instructions: Divide into four groups.

  • Group 1 audience: kids 5-12 yrs. accompanied by middle-class American grandparents ages 50-75.
  • Group 2 audience: underprivileged pre-K kids 4-5 yrs. accompanied by teenage siblings, babysitters, or parents ages 18-25 yrs.
  • Group 3 audience:  lower-middle-class kids 5-12 yrs. accompanied by American parents ages 21-30.
  • Group 4 audience: pre-K kids 4-5 yrs. with affluent American grandparents ages 50-75.


  1. As a group pick one of the four images (below).
  2.  Brainstorm how you could facilitate a conversation about environmental issues (soil erosion caused by over farming, deforestation, loss of animal habitats, industrialism, human-created pollution, etc.).
  3. What upcycling craft or project could a museum educator create with your audience during a 1-hour program (in addition to the crafts mentioned above, making recycled paper and drawing activities are popular)?
  4. Briefly tell the class about your objectives and program.

For citations and more information about this blog post please see the following PDF: walcutt_art-the-environment-and-upcycling

6 thoughts on “Art, the Environment, and Upcycling By Anna Walcutt

  1. zhuoweiliu

    Environmental education refers to organized efforts to teach how natural environments function, and particularly, how human beings can manage behavior and ecosystems to live sustainably. Focus on this point; museum must be an important role to spread this topic, which have a strong relationship with the community. Thanks for you’re sharing and provided a simple for show us how to do an environmental educational activities.


  2. julianavenegas

    It seems as though you are really focusing on younger children in terms of up-cycling. I think you share a great deal of examples that are relevant to this age group, but it makes think how these projects may change with the population. For example, do these specific examples really correlate to just younger children, or are they good for all ages and you are just focusing on younger children? I suppose this would really come down to looking at the programs that are being done along with the crafts, as well as applicable learning theory. Thanks for sharing the links – they may be helpful resources in the future.


  3. mep17ruthann

    I think what I got from your blog was that up cycling can be a good hands-on tool to use in museums when teaching about applying economically friendly practices into everyday life. Naturally this can be beneficial and fun for people of all ages. Perhaps an example of how these activities can have ranges of complexity to accommodate different abilities? I would also be curious about what lessons would be connected to these activities, or are they just economically responsible materials for unstructured creativity? Over all I really like this idea in museums since education departments usually have to fight for craft materials (ultimately opting for craft-less lessons when they cant get the materials), but by using recycled materials museums are both saving money and helping the environment. Bravo!


  4. ninasgraham

    I really enjoyed your perspective on what environmentally educational programs out there are supported by museums, and how they can be more inviting to the public. You mentioned a few programs centered around children but I wonder if museums are producing programs that are intergenerational, or even strictly for an older audience. I would argue that there are more mature adults then younger adults that do not believe in global warming. And therefore wonder how to access that audience, in particular. Otherwise I really appreciated learning about the programs you mentioned that has already been offered to the public.


  5. kellyrweiss

    Anna, I found the Brainstorming, planning, and critical thinking exercises for educators section of your post to be the most helpful, for its specific nature. Like the our other colleagues mentioned before me you never exclusively identify your audience as being elementary aged children, but all of your resources are tailored for them. I would be interested to see these activities as well as other translated for teens who are a great resource for tapping into since this is when many people begin to care about the environment. Your activities are perfect for use at organizations like SEEC, but I think for use in school groups and others that attend museums there may need to be a more direct connection to the objects in the museum or additional educational value.



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