Sunday, September 23, 2012


When we moved into our new space 15 months ago, our friends at the Fremont Baptist Church teased me for all the "junk" we moved into our new storage room, but particularly gave me a hard time for our styrofoam collection. I often say that one of the necessary societal functions of every preschool ought to be to finish using up the stuff that the rest of society is ready to throw out, an important step of "reuse" in the reduce-reuse-recycle lifestyle that we're all going to have to embrace whether we like it or not. I take great pride in our ability at Woodland Park to avoid buying new things, instead running a good portion of our program on this stuff we're using up, but in the case of styrofoam I must say I was on the verge of giving up.

I mean, after the teasing, and after surveying the challenge of fitting into our new storage space, we purged over half of the styrofoam collection. It broke my heart, but it takes up a lot of space and I've really had no success in coming up with anything really cool to do with it. 

Yes, it's great for practicing hammering skills, being a soft surface into which we can drive golf tees, but how much of that can you do? And we have gotten some decent use out of styrofoam heads (and here and here), but those rarely come our way as refuse.  Otherwise I've not found anything else the kids like to do with styrofoam other than to just break it up into little pieces, which is what, up to now, wound up happening anytime I left the kids to answer the question of what to do with it, creating a huge, static-clingy, worse-than-sand, vacuum cleaner resistant, toxic mess.

All that said, with the advent of our new 5's program, I put out a call to our community for styrofoam, which I have no plans to store, but rather to make one last, all-out attempt to do something cool with it. We laid our various oddball chunks of the stuff on our outdoor art tables, along with pipe cleaners that the church recently unearthed in one of their own storage cabinets, a baggie full of wooden toothpicks and a pair of simple, finicky hot wire styrofoam cutters that I picked up a couple years ago at Daiso (the Japanese "dollar" store).

And you know what? These kids, these older kids, knew what to do with it. Indeed, there was some wanton "breaking," but mostly they sat down to figuring out how to play with this toxic waste.  As always, the tools were at the center of their enthusiasm

The hot wire cutters have always been a challenge for the younger children, requiring the dexterity to hold down a "button" that doesn't look like a button, while simultaneously guiding the wire smoothly, but not too quickly, through styrofoam of just the right thickness. If you do it right, it's like slicing through butter with a hot knife, very gratifying; but if you even let up on the button a little, if you try to force it, if you don't do it just right, the tool can be frustrating. Not all, but several of the kids managed to fiddle around with these tools enough to develop some proficiency with them and got quite good and cutting off little bits, sometimes in the shapes they intended.

It was while awaiting their turn, however, that the real creativity took over. We built "space modules" and unicorn horns and crazy buildings and necklaces. We made cities and trees and linked chains festooned with the bits being cut with the hot wire.

Sadly, we did break one of the hot wires, but now I'm inspired. I know that craft stores sell table-top versions of hot wire cutters. 

We ran with this for two days straight, the kids continuing to add to both their individual and community constructions. Several of them even took things home with them. I wonder how long it will be before the styrofoam returns to Woodland Park for yet another reuse.

(This is the first year of our 5's class. If you have a 4-5 year old, live in Seattle, or know someone who does, we still have a few spots available. Contact to set up a tour.)

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MaryEllen said...

Love all the fun stuff you did with the styrofoam...I try to use it all the time too when I find the huge pieces to play with. One mistake I have made in years past though was with the smaller pieces (packing ones) The class had a blast with it but it stuck to EVERYTHING!!!! I had to run home and get my shop-vac to clean it all up as it was clogging the regular vacuum cleaner. I just worried that the children would inhale the small pieces that had crumbled on their faces. Otherwise...they loved it!!! Even told me the next day that it was found all over their bodies and under the clothes they were wearing. Moms told me it all came off in the bathtub that night. For all the kids knew...they had a snow storm (BLIZZARD) in the classroom that day. That part still makes me smile..and I grabbed some pictures of their happy faces too!!!

Katie said...

I'm feeling totally inspired!

Kate said...

That's really cool Teacher Tom. Turns out all you needed was some older kiddos! My husband makes airplane wings for RC planes out of styrofoam. He has a huge hot wire cutter that is hooked up to a computer, he designs the plane wings and then the wire cuts out all the wings.

Anonymous said...

I had been discouraged in the past with styrofoam because of the little bits that have static cling, and end up on everything! After reading your post I was driving home from my son's music lesson and spotted two huge pieces of styrofoam sticking out of the top of my neighbor's trash can. I snagged them. The next day I went to Joann's and bought a styrofoam cutter. On Friday my students used the styrofoam and cutter in my sculpture class. We loved it! Thanks so much for all the helpful info! Now I'm going to keep my eye out at all the garage sales and thrift stores for more styrofoam cutters!