New Beads

Reading through the blogosphere lately, I noticed many questions about beads. Programs in our field traditionally have used plastic and wooden beads for children to explore and create with. The beads are purchased from catalogs of the suppliers in our field. Children start off at younger ages using beads as a manipulative, scooping, collecting, and pouring beads into or onto tables, trays, and bowls. As children develop the beads are used to create jewelry, make art projects, and as a measuring tool for math and science. The question I am hearing from other educators is what materials can be used for bead making that are recyclable, sensitive to the environment, and are not food?

One tradition in our field is to use food as beads, for crafts and other projects besides eating. This is an old tradition and the frequency of this activity has decreased with increased awareness about food scarcity for many people. I have read discussions that asked the question if play dough is considered food because some of the ingredients can be used to create food. In the act of exploring and creation, we use substances that can be used in conjunction with other ingredients to create food. This usually happens in art and science. I struggle with this question myself; I think it is up to each individual. What I do know is that in the process of bead making we have other choices. There are many traditional and newer materials that we can use to create beads and I am going to share a few of my favorites.

I love recycling materials and inviting children to repurpose these materials into something new. I have used recycled plastic materials of all types for bead making. Materials like bread closures, bottle caps, cut up 2 liter bottles, electronic parts, and any small plastic item I can drill a small hole into becomes a bead and a medium for jewelry making. Why not just use plastic beads? We do, but less often and mainly as fuse beads because I have not figured out how to make them out of a recycled material. My goal is to eliminate the use of new plastic and use the plastic that has already been created, is plentiful, and saves on the use of oil helping the environment.

Another plentiful resource is recycled paper. Even as the whole world is changing and the newspaper and magazine industry is becoming smaller there is still an abundance of paper related products that pass by each of us every day. Much of this paper can be made into beads. The beauty of all this paper is that it comes in different colors and textures and that creates different types of beads. An added bonus is that making paper beads becomes part of the process and so the children see the life of their beads from birth as an old magazine into the resulting creative work. Many great recipes for paper beads exist online I would invite you to make some and enjoy the process.

Wood offers some of the same advantages as paper and recycled plastic and is more plentiful. All types of wood materials can be used as beads. Wood offers different natural textures and unique shapes. If the wood piece is large enough to have hole drilled into it the transformation into a bead is possible.  Wood pieces from scrap collected or donated by members of the learning community can be cut into small pieces and made into beads. Some communities have recycled building supply or recycled materials supplies stores that offer many materials at reasonable prices. Here in Portland we have SCRAP - a store of recycled materials for creation. Many vendors do the work for you and create wooden loose parts than are great for any creative project and make great beads. Wooden beads can also be purchased and are more sustainable than plastic because of the renewable nature of the forest and the benefits trees offer the earth.

These are a few ideas for replacing plastic beads in a program. Good luck with your bead material scavenger hunt and if you have ideas of recyclable materials that make great beads please share in the comments. Thanks for reading.

What recycled material do you use to create beads?