Creative Play Ideas with Packaging and Junk Mail: Recycling Bin to the Rescue


You’re probably doing a lot of online shopping right now. This means that your recycling bin probably needs to be emptied more often than what the trash guys schedule allows. Before you throw it all out to the curb, I want to tell you some of my creative play ideas for discarded packing materials and junk mail!

I am a pediatric occupational therapist. My job is to help children hone their motor and sensory skills so they can be independent doing their “job” – to PLAY.

These skills are things like using two hands to cut with scissors, having the hand strength to fold and rip paper, and the coordination to jump with two feet together. Kids use these skills to play alone or with a sibling or a peer. Most of all, learning how to play is about learning how to be creative and have the regulation and planning skills to NOT tell their parent “I’M BORED”.

The Recycling Bin: A Bin of Creative Play Ideas

As a parent, I try to minimize the amount of plastic garbage toys that come into my house between my boys late-fall birthdays and the exploding Santa sack that arrives in December. I noticed my children playing happily with holiday packaging and materials that arrive in the mail (given my intimate relationship with Amazon Prime). Much to my husband’s dismay, we won’t let go of the contents of the recycling bin without a fight. These green stinky waste management bins hold hours of play in them.

Here are some creative play ideas from your recycling bin to help foster creativity:

All aboard the trash train!

My colleagues and I joke that we could come up with a whole summer camp curriculum made out of boxes.

  • Put one inside the other and see how many you can fit.
  • With a toy inside, shake the contents and guess what it holds.
  • Line them up as train cars, stack them as buildings or a rocket ship. Fill them up with other things and then play post office.
  • Turn them into houses for stuffed animals.
  • Hide inside and then jump out as Dad comes in the door from work.
  • Play birthday party with them and put toys inside as presents for your brother.
  • Decorate them with markers and crayons and stickers. Or paint!
  • Make a spaceship out of a refrigerator box (if I could figure out how to get one in my car I would do this all the time!)
Rocketship fix-it shop

Cardboard Tubes: 
From wrapping paper tubes to toilet paper rolls, these are great!

  • Use these as binoculars or lookout posts for when you build a pirate ship out of boxes. 
  • Take the longer ones from wrapping paper and fly cars or small bouncy balls through them to start a domino knock-down machine.
  • Use these as oars to row your cardboard box pirate ship.

Bubble Wrap: 
My 2 year old is frightened of the noise, but my older son loves popping it when he’s not around.

  • We color the small bubbles with markers so we can make up games to roll a color dice to pop it.
  • The large bubbles make great hopscotch mats, landing zones for jumping, and roads for heavy trucks.

Cardboard Mailers: 
Save the junk mail as these are the best weight paper products to cut! So are paint sample cards from Home Depot or Lowes, and they even have the white lines in between the colors.

  • We cut tickets, make messes, cut strips and then make confetti.
  • Get out hole punches and validate “tickets”. Bonus if you do so while riding in your cardboard box train car.

Don’t be surprised if your kids end up playing with this stuff on Christmas more than their toys!

  • Paper is great for ripping, squishing and balling up.
  • More experienced scissors users can use for cutting. However, keep in mind that ripping up paper is a precursor to scissor use because it takes some serious skill and strength.
  • Wrap small squares of tissue paper around a pencil. Then proceed to dip the ends in glue to make flower petals.

Packing Peanuts: I don’t see these as often as the plastic bubble wrap from Amazon, but these are such flexible playthings if you happen to get some. 

  • My kids pack pretend birthday party presents with them, use them as food for train passengers, and then “cook” with them.
  • Make-believe that they are ice cubes and snow.
  • Dump them all over the floor and then sweep them up.
  • Bonus tip: they can serve as an art medium if you dip one side into water. Once it’s wet, it will adhere to another peanut like a chain.
  • You can buy colored packing peanuts are in craft stores and then use these ideas for some crazy fun! 

Play With Your Recycling

I hope your days are filled with hours of playtime but, if boredom sets in, your recycle bin holds creative play ideas with holiday packaging! I hope these ideas help to chase away some gray days when it’s too cold or too dark to get everyone outside. Go ahead, empty your recycling bins so you can get creative!