Creating Free or Low-Cost Learning Spaces
By Carolyn Tomlin

If you’re like many teachers of young children, you’re on everyone’s mailing list that offers educational products for preschoolers. And for many parents, your name has made its way to their address file, also. Most of these products are “guaranteed” to produce gifted, high achievers who will become socially accepted individuals—especially if you purchase their products. With all the promises to produce these results, is it any wonder that teachers and parents working on tight budgets would feel they aren’t measuring up to expectations? Especially, if other child care programs and parents used these educational tools.

Never fear. Those of us who have relied on our own imaginations and creativity to build strong curriculums and well-adjusted children understand that an unlimited budget, alone, doesn’t produce the expected results.  

Other than being a committed, loving caregiver, how can all children reach their highest potential? First, be committed to receive training as a teacher of young children. Another, have knowledge of how to use free or low-cost materials. Then, construct developmentally appropriate indoor and outdoor learning spaces.  

Yes, you can design learning spaces by finding needed items at garage and yard sales. I should know. Several years ago, when I developed a pilot kindergarten program in West Tennessee, I was assigned a room that contained furniture for upper elementary students. The only educational item the room held was a cigar box of broken crayons. When I asked the principal about supplies, he said, “There is no money. And there’ll be no money until after Christmas—if then! Make the best of what you have!”  

With a master’s degree in early childhood education, my creativity and imagination, I started work. First, I made a list of “Needs” and a few “Wants.” Then I searched garage and yard sales, begged friends whose children were no longer preschoolers to check for books and toys appropriate for kindergarteners. And yes, I even cleaned out several attics on blistering summer days. One find that became the focal point of my room: an antique claw-footed bathtub that I painted fire engine red and used as a reading center.  

I’m saying this, to say, “Yes, you can have a successful preschool program without spending lots of money. Looking back, that first year of teaching was probably my most exciting year—for the children and myself. 

The following recycled materials are gleamed from years of teaching young children and education majors from Union University. Divided into Indoor and Outdoor Learning Spaces, these ideas, like the catalogs promise, will turn your children into “Super Kids.”


Materials for Indoor Learning Spaces

Indoor learning space offers many opportunities for using the five senses, including touching, seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting. As you weave these into the curriculum, keep in mind that children learn in different ways. Some learn best visually, others auditory and some are more successful using the kinesthetic mode. Teachers, incorporate all learning styles into lesson plans—not only the mode in which you learn best.

  • Carpet squares—Check with carpet supply stores for discarded floor samples. Use single squares for making boundaries or designating a place for a child to sit. Use carpet tape to combine squares for an area rug. This makes a colorful and practical addition to any area of the classroom.
  • Round table—Locate a wooden, round table at a second-hand or motel discount store. Cut off the legs so the table will be the right height for preschoolers. Cover with a plastic cloth for easy cleanup.
  • Dish pan—place a round dishpan on the round table.  Add sand, rice, dried beans or water to the pan. Several children can have access to this tactile activity.
  • Plants from seeds—Place a damp paper towel inside a clear quart jar. Carefully, insert several dried beans. Place in a sunny window and keep moist. Small leaves and a root system will appear in a few days. Students can watch the miracle of a plant develop from a seed.
  • Wall paper books—Check with a home decorating store for last year’s sample books. Use these to make mats for artwork, cover small boxes and creative collages.
  • Paper plates—Turn plates into clocks for teaching time. Cut an hour and minute hand from tag board. Fasten with a brad. Using a black marker, write the hours of a clock.
  • No-stick play dough—Measure 2  ½ cups all-purpose flour, ½ cup salt, 2 small packages unsweetened gelatin mix, 1 tablespoon alum into a large bowl. Add 2 tablespoons oil and 2 cups boiling water to dry ingredients. Shape into a ball and store in a plastic bag. Keep refrigerated when not in use.
  • Straws—Learn about force: Blow through a straw to move small pieces of paper.
  • Spools—String empty thread spools to make a chain or necklace. Cut yarn the desired length. Dip one end of yarn in glue and let dry for easier insertion.
  • Buttons—Collect buttons from a garage sale, or ask parents to contribute. Add to collages; for wheels on automobiles (artwork); fill a baby food jar and let children estimate how many, then work together to empty and count the exact number; group buttons by color, shape and number of eyes. Teach using a large needle and thread and sewing a big button to cloth.
  • Pasta—Made in a wide assortment of shapes and sizes, pasta is great for gluing on paper plates and other artwork. Place a variety of pasta in the center of a round table. Give each child an egg carton. Place one piece of each shape in one of the egg sections. Say: Can you kind more pasta that is the same as this one. Add it to the section. 
  • Egg cartons—Use sections to sort buttons, dried beans and pasta. Or, cut down the middle and turn into crazy animals and insects. Depending on your critter, add horns, antlers or wings. Paint with tempera.
  • Crayon art—Never discard broken crayons. Instead, grate crayons on a piece of wax paper. Fold together. An adult uses a warm iron to melt the shavings. Hang in a sunny window to make a stain-glass work of art. Or, cover a cookie sheet with aluminum foil. Place broken crayons in a warm oven until soft. Shape into bracelets, pins and rings. Beautiful when a child says, “I made it myself!”


Materials for Outdoor Learning Spaces

As you think of creating outdoor spaces with recycled items, remember the developmental age of the children. Some ideas lend themselves to gyms, multipurpose rooms or an extra classroom. The following ideas make learning fun!

  • 50-gallon barrel—remove both ends from the barrel. Smooth rough edges by using a grinder. Use the barrel for rolling, climbing on top and crawling inside. Paint a bright color for playground enjoyment.
  • Tractor seats—Check with a farm supply store for a damaged tractor seat, or locate one at a flea market sale. Paint in bright colors and secure on low posts or a tree stump left on the playground.
  • Police car—Instead of an old police car taking up space in an automobile dump, ask to have it transported to your playground. Keep fingers and hands safe by removing all doors. 

·         Balance beams—Place an 8-foot 2 by 4-inch beam, supported by two concrete blocks at each end. This simple playground equipment helps children balance while being a few inches off the ground.

·         Sheet tent—On a nearby tree or building, secure two clothes line about 4 feet apart. Hang a sheet over the lines for a tent. Another option: take a card table outdoors for the day and cover with a sheet or blanket.

·         Appliance boxes—Ask an appliance dealer to save several large cardboard boxes. Place on the playground (on a day without rain). Supply colored chalk or wide paint brushes and water. Children will have just as much fun using water as “paint” and it’s easier on their clothes. Make the boxes into “our town” or “our community.” Where will we place your home? The church? The grocery and others? Adults can help cut out doors and windows on buildings.

·         Tree stump and nails—If a tree needs to be cut on your playground, ask that the stump (about 1 foot) remain. If not available, bring in a small log. Soft wood works best. Using adult supervision, a hammer and roofing nails (with large heads) are a good activity to develop hand-eye coordination.

·         Lengths of rope—Ropes help creativity happen. However, always supervise rope play. For Tug-of-War, divide the rope in half. An even number of children begin at the half-way mark of the rope where a line is drawn. The object of the game is to pull the opposing side across this line.

·         Boundaries—Use ropes to make boundaries or paths for wheel toys.

·         Geometric shapes—Teach basic geometric shapes, such as circle, square, triangle and rectangle by using ropes outside. When children walk on the outline they internalize this term.


Miscellaneous Items

These classroom materials can often be obtained from companies and businesses in your area. Ask parents to check with employers for free items.

·         Paper clips (office supply store)

·         Key rings (insurance company)

·         Old keys and locks (from a locksmith)

·         Odd paper, all sizes and colors (from a printing company)

·         Plastic forks, knives and spoons (fast-food restaurant)

·         Tongue depressors, for art project (dentist office)

·         Fabric scraps, for collage or a class quilt (fabric store or seamstress)

·         Plastic bags and brown paper bags, all sizes (bag company)

·         Dress up clothes (garage sales, wash or dry clean before using)

·         Small tools (hardware store)

By creating indoor and outdoor learning materials from free or low-cost objects, you can provide a curriculum that fosters growth for now—as well as the future.


Carolyn Ross Tomlin has taught kindergarten students and early childhood education at Union University. She has published over 2,500 magazine articles and twelve books. And special thanks to Margie Casteel, Savannah, TN for sharing some ideas from 20 years of teaching kindergarten.




Cherry, C. (1976). Creative play for the developing child. Carthage IL. Fearon. 

Crosser, S. (1994). Making the most of water play. Young Children, 49(5).

Hill, D.M. (1977). Mud, Sand and Water. Washington, D.C. NAEYC. #308. 

Wellhousen, Karyn (2002). Outdoor Play Everyday: Innovative Play Concepts for Early Childhood. Delmar Learning.


Websites for Additional Ideas