From Trash to Treasure

Children will make sculptures from recycled boxes.

Lesson Objective

Children will explore upcycling by using recycled materials to create sculptures. 


What You'll Need

  • Untitled, John Chamberlain – two views from the Cleveland Museum of Art website
  • Containers for paint
  • Tempera paint, various colors
  • Brushes – 1 per child
  • Newspaper (to cover tables)
  • Utility scissors or knife (teacher use only)
  • Used cardboard boxes – 1 small box per child


What To Do

Note: Prior to the start of the lesson, cut the cardboard boxes into 6"× 12" pieces for the base of the sculpture – 2 per child; and 4 or 5 irregularly-shaped smaller pieces of cardboard per child. Keep one box intact for the lesson. Cover the tables with newspaper.

  1. Show children an empty cardboard box. Explain that no one needs it anymore. Ask the children what they could do with it (throw it away, recycle it, store things in it, upcycle it into art, etc.).
  2. Explain to the children that we are going to upcycle a box by decorating pieces of it and turning it into something beautiful.
  3. Starting with the 6"× 12" pieces, have the children paint all cardboard shapes.
  4. Once the paint is dry, cut a slit into one side of each shape. Cut the slits on the 6"× 12" base pieces halfway down the center of the longest side.

5. Show one view of John Chamberlain’s sculpture. Point out that even though the picture is flat, the artwork is not. Show the other view. Have the children spot differences between the two views. How can they both be of the same work? (They are taken from different sides. Because the artwork isn’t flat, it is a sculpture.)

6. Demonstrate how to use the painted shapes to make a sculpture by interlocking the base pieces to form an X. Allow the class to direct the placement of the smaller pieces on the base; emphasize directional words—such as beside, above, below, to the left, to the right—as you place each piece.

7. Distribute the painted pieces to the children, and let them make their own sculptures. Pieces can be endlessly rearranged.

Guiding Student Inquiry

  • Tell me what you think the sculpture, Untitled, is made of (old cars and other metal objects).
  • Do you think all the pieces in Untitled came from the same car? How can you tell?
  • The artwork is Untitled because the artist didn’t give it a name. Can you think of a name for it?
  • Tell me about your sculpture. Which side of your sculpture do you like the best?
  • What other materials could we upcycle to make sculptures?

Explore, Extend & Integrate

  • Explore the concept of “three dimensions” by seating the class in a circle and choosing one student to pose in the middle. Discuss what can be seen from different vantage points—can everyone see the student’s hands, the back of her head, her smile?
  • Display the sculptures; encourage visitors to look at all sides of each artwork.
  • Take a sheet of tin foil; bend, twist, and crush it to make a sculpture. Try wrapping the foil around a small object.

Check for Children’s Understanding

  • Could children describe how they created their sculpture?
  • Could children explain what recycled materials were used to create their sculpture?
  • Could children explain what it means to upcycle something?
  • Could children identify the difference between two- (flat) and three-dimensional objects?


Did You Know?

Many artists use recycled materials to create artwork. When old products are reused to create something of greater value, they are considered to be upcycled (i.e., old shipping pallets can be used to make furniture). While the concept of upcycling is not a new process, the term originated in the 1990s. Upcycling is an affordable and environmentally friendly way to create art at home and in the classroom. John Chamberlain used parts of cars as the material for his sculpture. Sculptures are three-dimensional artworks. They are different than two-dimensional paintings and drawings because they are not flat; they have form. Chamberlain liked using cars for his artwork so much that after 1959, that was the only material he used. Chamberlain was an American artist who worked in the 1950s, at the same time as the Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School. They used action or gesture painting as a way to convey emotions. Chamberlain did the same thing using form or three dimensions.

Vocabulary: Child-Friendly Definitions

  • art – a creative expression. 
  • artist – a person who has a skill at painting, music, dancing, or any other form of art.
  • flat – a surface that does not have higher and lower places; smooth and even.
  • sculpture – an artwork that is not flat; one that has three dimensions. 
  • recycle – to put used things through a process that allows them to be used again.
  • upcycle – to reuse old materials in a new way that increases their value.

Lesson Tips

  • Use boxes that are printed or colorful on one side. Once cut, only one side needs to be painted.
  • Box flaps work well as base pieces for sculptures.


  • 3D ABC: A Sculptural Alphabet by Bob Raczka
  • ABeCedarios: Mexican Folk Art ABCs in English and Spanish (First Concepts in Mexican Folk Art) by Cynthia Weill and K. B. Basseches
  • If I Built a Car by Chris Van Dusen
  • Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
  • What Can You Do with an Old Red Shoe? by Anna Alter
  • The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

Home School Resources

Home educators: use these printable lesson PDFs to teach this lesson to your home schoolers. They're available in English and Spanish.

Home/School Connections

Las Conexiones a la Casa

While we believe that the books and resources recommended may be of value to you, keep in mind that these are suggestions only and you must do your own due diligence to determine whether the materials are appropriate and suitable for your use. PNC has no sponsorship or endorsement agreement with the authors or publishers of the materials listed.

Content Provided By

Common Core State Standards Initiative – These lessons are aligned with the Common Core State Standards ("CCSS"). The CCSS provide a consistent, clear understanding of the concepts and skills children are expected to learn and guide teachers to provide their students with opportunities to gain these important skills and foundational knowledge [1]. Visit the CCSS