Turning recycling into child’s play

University of Sydney researchers led by Professor Anita Bundy are using recycling to make school playgrounds healthier for students.


Children getting creative with recycled materials.

Milk crates, car tyres, old advertising banners and foam pool ‘noodles’ are all key components of Professor Bundy’s research, which could see playgrounds transformed into life-changing bastions of recycling.

Professor Bundy, who holds the Chair of Occupational Therapy in the Faculty of Health Sciences, recently completed a trial in which children at 12 Sydney primary schools used recycled play materials at recess and lunch, with no directions given on how to play with them.

The preliminary results of the study suggest that children with access to the recycled materials become more physically active, socially adept and psychologically resilient than children in a traditional playground.

“That is actually a miracle when you think about it, to change behaviour so much with a limited amount of materials, on a playground with so many kids,” says Professor Bundy. As a result, she believes, the play materials represent a potential new strategy for tackling the childhood obesity epidemic.

Increasing kids’ activity levels is a major public health priority in Australia, with one quarter of children currently overweight or obese and the ratio predicted to reach two thirds by 2020.

While the students in the study became more active by playing with the materials, they also became better negotiators and developed coping mechanisms, and there is evidence that anti-social behaviour, such as hitting, decreased. It suggests the materials may have a role in reducing school bullying, Professor Bundy says.

“Kids who play better, cope better,” she says. “They have better emotional wellbeing and mental health.”

And children were particularly creative about how they made their own fun. At one school, for example, students took a giant letter U – an old theatrical prop – and used it to create the entrance to Luna Park, encouraging schoolmates to go through it to play on a makeshift obstacle course.

The research findings are currently being prepared for publication. In the future, the researchers hope to make the recycled play materials more widely available, including to children with disabilities.

“We know this works,” she says. “What we need now is to be able to offer the same opportunities to many more children across Australia.”

This story was first published in the Sydney Annual.

Our partnerships: Joining forces

Anita Bundy

Professor Anita Bundy

Dr Anita Bundy’s team received support for their large-scale study from groups ranging from national organisations to community groups and generous individuals. They secured funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council, and also relied on help from non-profit, corporate and individual supporters.

Local community group Reverse Garbage supplied recycled materials. Some of its members, and volunteers from National Australia Bank and the research team’s own family and friends, child-proofed the objects.