Here’s a great reason to eat potato chips (you don’t have to eat them, but it’s a good excuse). Have your students collect Pringles cans or any other metal or cardboard can that has a plastic lid and upcycle them into a great holiday activity. Our students have loved making recycled can characters over the years.
This activity will work with other types of cans that are made of cardboard with a metal base and plastic lid.
We made our cans into snowmen, gingerbread men, penguins, Santas, elves and reindeer as a fun Christmas craft activity that parents will cherish for years to come.
We have specific instructions for each type of character below, but all the projects require these steps in order to start.
Collect Your Materials to Make Recycled Can Characters
If you are going to have students collect their cans and bring them to school, we’ve found letting families know as early in the school year as possible about the project. You do not have to use Pringle’s cans, but we have found they make pretty cute shapes. Cans that are completely plastic or completely metal tend to not paint as easily.
You will also need
- acrylic paint. Tempera paint flakes off most of the can surfaces so we do not recommend it. If you have to use Tempera try adding a bit of white glue to the paint to make it more durable. This will prevent the paint from flaking off, but too much will thin out the paint and dilute the colour. We recommend these colours: white, red, green, brown, skin colours, black
- acrylic paintbrushes
- plastic plates or ice cream pail lids to use as palettes
- plastic table cloths (optional). They work great to cover your tables or desks for easy clean-up.
- googly eyes
- fabric scraps
- white glue
- hot glue and glue guns
- permanent markers like Sharpies
- foam sheets
- plastic wrap
- cotton balls
Day One of the Project:
- Eat all the chips and then wipe out the can with a dry paper towel.
- Have students write their names on the metal bottom of the can because once they start working, it will be a challenge to do this.
- Paint the cans with acrylic paint as the cans often have a plastic-like coating to protect it. It will likely take two coats, possibly more depending on the painting skills of your students.
If you have been avoiding teaching art because of the mess, you need to read this post we wrote about this very problem.
Here are some tips to make the painting day go a little smoother.
Arrange students in groups of desks with the same colour so that they only need one dish of each colour: white, brown, red, green etc. Everyone at the group is painting the same colour so it’s easy to share the tray of paint.
Since everyone is painting with the same colour at each group, there is not need to have water cups to wash the brushes between colours.
Create one spot where the skin colours can live. People who are painting Santas or elves can go to that space to paint the faces on their cans.
Wrap a plate/ice cream pail lid in plastic wrap and tape it to the bottom to be secure. Now you can pour the paint in and when it’s time to clean, just let it dry and then throw away the plastic wrap.
Students put their hands inside the cans and then painted the entire outside of the can but not the base or the lid. This way they can paint the whole thing and then set it down or pick it up by putting their hand inside the can.
Make all the brush strokes in the same direction to help with paint coverage.
Let the paint dry for about 10 minutes in between coats and then let the cans dry overnight.
If you have students that are away, paint a few extra cans so they can join in on the second day.
Have one or two helpers wash all your brushes while the rest of the class cleans up the rest of the room, folds up the tablecloths (just fold them with the wet paint-they’ll dry and you can just shake them out later) and puts the room back in order. Use one of the table cloths to cover a table and place all the cans on it to dry overnight.
What to do on day two of the project.
Students add their own details to make their characters their own. This is the fun part!
We had a pile of googly eyes, felt, material scraps, buttons, yarn, glitter, paper scraps, pipe cleaners, cotton balls and pompoms (basically all the ends of all the packages of art supplies from the year along with a few items from the dollar store and donations from families). Two parent helpers joined us for the operation of the hot glue guns. They were there to supervise students who used them and prevent any burns or fires. Students also used white glue (and glue sponges) to attach many of their pieces of paper and fabric.
On day two, students added their own details. We had a pile of googly eyes, felt, material scraps, buttons, yarn, glitter, paper scraps, pipe cleaners, cotton balls and pompoms (basically all the ends of all the packages of art supplies from the year along with a few items from the dollar store and donations from families).
Two parent helpers joined us for operation of the hot glue guns. They were there to supervise students who used them and prevent any burns or fires. Students also used white glue (and glue sponges) to attach many of their pieces of paper and fabric.
Basically, we gave students free rein on what they could create and the results were amazing. Don’t be afraid to let your students have fun.
How to create the specific recycled can characters
These characters have a Christmas theme, but you can use the basics to make any character.
Paint the back and sides of the can black. Once the black is dried, paint a white belly and face. This can be done on day one, between coats of paint. Add feet using orange fabric or foam to the bottom of the can so it stays stable. Add a beak and eyes.
Paint the whole can red. Use a skin colour to paint a large circle for the face. This can be done on day one by painting both colours with a few coats. Add their hat to the lid with a pompom for the tip of the hat. Help with a hot glue gun to make it stay attached in a pointed fashion may be needed. Give Santa a belt and boots. Give your characters eyes and a nose. Make a beard for Santa out of cotton balls.
Paint the whole can green. Use a skin colour to paint a large circle for the face. This can be done on day one by painting both colours with a few coats. Add their hat to the lid along with a bell or pompom at the tip. Help with a hot glue gun to make it stay attached in a pointed fashion may be needed. Add some boots or fancy shoes. Give your characters eyes, a mouth and a nose. Add a scarf or a vest to make the elf look its cutest.
Paint the whole can white. Make a top hat and consider letting students use some small twigs for the arms. Many of our snowmen were wearing scarves and vests. Add eyes and buttons. You might even craft a little broom.
Paint the whole can brown. Use pipe cleaners or paper to create antlers. Add eyes and hooves. If the reindeer is Rudolph, add a red pompom or button for the nose.
Paint the whole can brown. Use white paint to paint eyes and details for the arms and legs (so they look like frosting). Think about adding a bow tie or bow for the head.
This one can work with a little detail. Paint the whole can green. Add a star to the top and make a garland to wrap around the whole tree. Add little buttons or details to make it look like the tree is decorated. Maybe even create a gift or two to place underneath.
This project kept our students SO engaged and busy. We’ve done it over multiple years and it’s always a hit. They trash the classroom.
The painting took about an hour and a half from beginning to the end of the cleanup. Covering the tables and paint palettes helps speed up this process considerably.
Adding details to the characters took about two hours (we used a whole afternoon), but they could have kept going if we’d let them.
Clean-up took about thirty minutes (we’re not going to talk about the glitter in the vent). We started by sorting all the materials back into their containers and then washed everything down starting on the tables and working our way down the floor.
We believe firmly in having our students take responsibility for looking after our classroom, including having them help to clean up everything we do.
What can you use the cans for?
Have students place a note or small gift (one year we made flavoured popcorn) in a bag inside the can as a gift. We recommend using the bag as the inside of the can often still has an oily residue. Merry Christmas!
These make great decorations on their own. Parents often comment how they’ve tucked the cans away with all the Christmas decorations and then pull it out year after year.
We placed our cans along the stage for the Christmas concert one year. Another year we stacked them in a window as a decoration in the front office.
WAIT JUST A MINUTE!
This isn’t just a holiday-inspired activity. Consider having your students do this activity with characters from a book they’ve read. BOOM! Now it’s Language Arts!
Create recycled can characters from movies, video games or invent new characters. The possibilities are endless. You could turn the cans into just about anything you can imagine.
Are you looking for some other Christmas crafts?
We’ve been creating all kinds of different Christmas crafts over the years, but you can get them all here. We love creating new projects with our students.
- Fingerprint Art: Use fingerprints to make all kinds of wonderful Christmas crafts like cards or Christmas tree ornaments.
- Recycled Paper Ornaments: Use leftover paper from newspapers, fliers, greeting cards or magazines to created folded paper ornaments that will stun you.
- Christmas Word & Logic Activities: These logic puzzles will keep your students busy between craziness of the holiday season and concert rehearsals.
- Wooden Ornaments: Use some wooden game pieces to transform them into new Christmas tree ornaments.
- Recycled Cork Ornaments: Collect corks and turn them into adorable holiday characters that you can hang on the tree.
- Recycled Materials: Christmas Wreaths: Create interesting wreaths by using all kinds of green recycled fabric.
- Simple Christmas Tree Art Projects We Love: The most difficult part about these art projects is deciding which one to do!
- Design a Gingerbread House: Combine math and art in this fun activity that makes a mess and a wonderful creation!
- Elfbook: A Digital Creative Writing Activity: This activity uses Google Slides and lets your students create a social media profile page as if they were an elf.
How else could you use recycled can characters? Have you tried it yet? Did your students make something new and exciting? Let us know in the comments below.