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What are we doing with all those water bottles?

An innocent question posed by a three-year-old as she peered into the trash one day.

She was right – too many plastic bottles taking up space in our trash, and eventually our landfills. Our garbage disposal company claims they sort at the center, as all trash comes from one bin on our end. But do they? Really - What are we doing with all these water bottles?

Teachers can always find "teachable moments" to impart wisdom or find an answer to a child's dilemma in the moment. But how do you explore real-world questions in your classroom, giving time and leadership to the students? Enter the problem-based model of teaching skills and content through authentic, ill-structured problems, social engagement, and collaboration with peers (Gallagher & Gallagher, 2013; TeacherTube, n.d.; Zhang et al., 2011).

After a lengthy discussion during circle time, the children decided to reuse the bottles and create art projects. They also decided to collect other items from lunches that they could reuse – pouch caps from those squeeze applesauce or yogurts, and juice pouches.

The children came up with a list of solutions – ways to use the bottles. They added to this list each time they were involved in an activity where someone thought of another way we can put the water bottles to work. This lasted about two weeks, and here are some of their ideas.

Making Meditation Bottles

In our yoga and meditation groups, we have been working on breath work - slowing our breath and focusing our attention. One tool we use is a meditation bottle filled with water and glitter, and we play a game with it to slow our breath.

The children suggested they could all make their own meditation bottles to practice at home.

To make the bottles:

  • Fill with glitter and small objects covering about an inch at the bottom of the large clear water bottles.

  • Remove the labels.

  • Add water filling ¾ of the bottle.

  • Add a few drops of food coloring.

  • Add the remaining ¼ with clear glue to fill the bottles.

  • Tape the tops on with duct tape to prevent contents from spilling.

  • Shake away!

To play the game with your child, or calm your nervous system yourself:

  1. Shake the bottle.

  2. Focus on the glitter settling in the bottle and count how many breaths you take before all the glitter settles.

  3. Shake the bottle again. Try to take fewer breaths than your previous try.

  4. To slow your breath, first, breathe in to a count of 5.

  5. Next, try holding your breath at the end of each inhale before exhaling slowly to a count of 5.

  6. To try a box breath, hold on the end of each inhale and exhale. This slows your breathing further and quiets the nervous system and helps calm your mind.

We keep a few in the class to use anytime a child is upset and needs time to calm down. Most often, the children get them to use on their own, but it is a favorite solution for peers to help an upset friend.

Making Music

Using the caps of the bigger water bottles, we fill them with beans, tape closed, and paper mache. These can be turned into any creature, or just painted abstractly. We use them in music class to learn beats and patterns.

o To make paper mache – mix equal parts, glue, water, and flour. This solution should resemble pancake batter.

o Have the children tear newspaper into strips, dip in the batter, remove the extra paste by running the paper through fingers, and wrap the bottle caps with these. Make sure to overlap paper strips and coat the whole project.

o When dried, paint, and decorate!

Sculptural art

Bottles big and small make an excellent armature for building off of to create any sculpture. We had made snowmen during our winter studies, birds when we were studying spring and hatching ducks, and totem poles to write stories to. They have also been aliens, rocket ships, and witches. We write stories about all of our creations, and some we use as we write group stories and make stop motion animations.

Materials needed – newspaper, tin foil, masking tape, a water bottle, and paper mache.

These can take any shape, roll, or ball the newspaper and start taping these shapes onto the bottle. If you are building off the top, tinfoil is the easiest to shape. When finished transforming the water bottle, cover with paper mache.

Paint and decorate.

The best part of problem-based learning is the collaboration between children. The children take pride in their accomplishments during this process. They are empowered as they help design the activities, and the opportunities for learning exceed a single lesson in content, or skill-building.


Gallagher, S. A., & Gallagher, J. J., (2013). Using problem-based learning to explore unseen academic potential. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 7(1), 110–131.

TeacherTube. (n.d.). Problem-based learning with Mike Newsworthy [Video file]. Retrieved from

Zhang, M., Parker, J., Eberhardt, J., & Passalacqua, S. (2011). “What’s so terrible about swallowing an apple seed?” Problem-Based Learning in Kindergarten. Journal of Science Education & Technology, 20(5), 468–481.

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