Rehash Your Trash

Not a Box

My name is Betsy Silverman and my background is in hospitality and in design. During this phase of my life, I am mommy to Max, a 5 year old boy who loves to pretend. I'm trying to parent in a way that encourages imagination, environmental consciousness, and creativity. My plan is to look around and try to see with Max's fresh eyes and open heart. My goal is to try to see possibility instead of preconceptions and labels. Then, I hope to take things that we would normally cast aside, and imagine it's possibilities. I hope you will find some of my ideas interesting and hope that they will inspire some ideas of your own. Thanks for reading!




Sounds are all around us. There are so many sounds in nature – birds singing, water lapping, thunder clapping. We use sounds when we speak to each other and when we sing. There are so many sounds and so many ways to make sound that it is no wonder early man began to try to imitate the sounds in their world and to employ them to communicate.

Anthropologists say that first musical instruments were made 35,000 years ago. They were very simple creations made with natural materials: logs became drums, rocks became tappers, and dried gourds became shakers! In the pursuit of sound, communication and music making, probably anything that could make sound was employed. In fact, early man had to find ways to reuse as a matter of survival. It was so difficult to procure anything, and so time consuming to make something, that the concept of waste was completely foreign. In our society, full of items that are not only easily accessed, but also intentionally made to be used only once or to break quickly, this concept is shocking!

Click images to view slide show

DrumbeatMax makes “music” wherever he is and with whatever he finds.


Lots of parents refer to their kids as Neanderthals. Like early man, kids seem to be driven to make music (noise) by some internal force. I see that force in my son Max. I watched him babble, clap his hands, clang silverware, laugh and generally enjoy the sounds that he heard and made.

I brought Max to music “classes” before he could walk and always coveted the amazing instruments that the teachers had (and would gladly sell to me). I must confess that I bought more than my share. I now know I didn’t need to buy those musical instruments, I could have made them from commonly found materials and from items that would otherwise end up in my trash or recycling bins.


Every kid has tried her hand at pots and pans and coffee cans, because making music, particularly noisy music, is just a whole big bunch of fun.  But why limit your child to the kitchen classics, when, as you look around the house, you'll find so many other "instruments" to play. 

My idea is that instrument-making creativity doesn’t need to be part of an ancient or far-away civilization. The 21st century urban environment provides tons of cool sounding material resources and found objects. If you have access to recycled materials, then you can also create some awesome instruments. These instruments will make great sounds and work very much like their “real” counterparts. You do not need to be McGiver to do these ideas! Beautiful sounds come from things like copper tubing, dowels, pipes, coffee cans, vitamin jars, old keys, hubcaps and frying pans! Once you make one instrument from your recyclables, you'll never look at your recycling bin or hardware store the same way again. And maybe, you can put off buying that $25.00 bongo until your child can really appreciate it!


Rhythm Section

Percussion instruments generally make a sound with no definite pitch. Rather, they emphasize the beat of the music. When played, percussion instruments can be hit with the hand or with a mallet. Any two hard items, when banged together, will produce a sound and, therefore, an instrument!

At a Renaissance Fair, we saw this lady making music with two rocks banged together!

It doesnít take a lot of imagination to bang two objects together. This is a quick and easy recycled instrument.

Castanets work the same way as “bangers”, but are a bit more sophisticated. They are merely one-handed bangers!



I made these “castanets” in about 7 minutes. Using a small scrap of cardboard, bottle caps and glue. The hardest part was waiting for the glue to dry before we could press the upper and lower cardboard together so the bottle caps could meet and click. The other castanet is like a “qaraquib”, essentially a large Berber castanet. I made it from juice bottle lids, rubber bands from broccoli and some tape. It took mere minutes. Ole!

finger cymbals


For this variation on finger cymbals, I have no name. Basically, I glue some plastic bottle caps or large beads to the fingertips of random gloves. They make a great sound when you walk your fingers across any surface or when you close and open your hand to the beat of the music!

tap shoes



No discussion of “bangers” would be complete without mentioning, tap shoes. The forefathers of American tap, the slaves, had natural tap shoes; calloused feet. Their rhythmic sounds beat out in tones borrowed from skin rapping against wood. Tap has come a long way since then, but Max is happy with tins of Altoids taped to the top of his shoes, and pennies to the bottoms!


Max banging on a bunch of boxes

There is no right or wrong here, you can use anything you have to design a drum that meets your musical taste.

Whether it is a tom-tom or bongo or conga, drums all work the same way. When you hit a drum’s surface, it vibrates. This makes the air inside the drum vibrate and out comes sound. Different drums make different sounds because of their size, shape and the material with which they are made.

Drums are an important part of life and of religious ceremony in many cultures. If you want to add a bit of cultural information about the drum, or build a specific drum, have a look at pictures of different kinds of drums and the images found on them. You can add whatever inspires you! String, leather, feathers, beads ... any bits of scrap material you might have.



Marching band drum

Marching band drum -

An empty tin can with a plastic lid (like you might buy beans in) makes an awesome drum! The larger the can, the deeper the sound it will produce. Above I stretched a broken blue balloon across one of the can’s opening.

Max banging tinker toys

I must confess that we have tins of tinker toys, but have only used the tins to bang, never the toys to build.

You can use any recycled item that is not sharp or dirty (tin cans, plastic jugs, yogurt cups, water bottles, small cardboard boxes, etc.) Tape or rubber band 3 to 5 items together, use a strap from and old pocket book and play with pencils (unsharpened, using the eraser end).


misc. beaters
Any drummer will tell you that his “beater” selection is as important as his drum choice. Some mallets are hard and make a brittle sound. Others are padded and make a soft ringing sound. Your choices are unlimited, look around see what you can find and what you can combine!

You can pound drums with chopsticks, unsharpened pencils (either end), sticks with wine corks glued onto the end, paint brushes, dowels from dry cleaning hangers, paint mixing sticks, or your hands!


Spin Drum

Spin Drum


When children roll the central “drumstick” between their palms, the drum spins and the two attached beaters strike both lids.

This contraption took a while to figure out but this photo of the interior makes it pretty easy to see how you can make one. Once I figured it out, it took almost no time to make.



Peruvian street musicianPeruvian street musician

Shakers are among the oldest of musical instruments, almost certainly a found instrument in the beginning. After all, a gourd, left to dry for a month or two, will be a crude maraca. Someone in the pre-dawn of music making must have picked up a dry gourd, shook it, said "Wow", and brought it home to entertain their toddler. Shakers have evolved and are no longer found, but made. Primitive cultures use any container that can be sealed and any brittle material as fill material: beads, rice, dried beans, seeds, sand, pebbles and shells. Some cultures tie brittle materials to a string and just shake!

Industrial age resources are also excellent for making shakers. Cardboard tubes and used plastic or metal tubs make great containers. The trick is to find the right sizes, shapes and materials to suit your musical taste. Any container with its lid will do; film canisters, vitamin bottles, metal cans. For the shaker filling, you can use buttons, beads, soda flip tops, coins, or small broken toys!

Each will have a distinctive sound according to the size and hardness of the material. In general, the harder and more rigid the materials, the brighter and louder the projection they will have. Volume and projection are also affected by the size and thickness of the shaker and the amount of filler.

Max and his breadcrumb container shakercut cup
Max and his breadcrumb container shaker

One crazy shaker I made recently was a big hit after a picnic. I took a plastic cup that had held water and “fringed” it. The kids loved running around with them and used them to play everything from “it’s raining” to “monster”.

Bottle Cap TambourineBottle Cap Tambourine

Bottle Cap Tambourines are popular in Brazil and Africa. With a Y-shaped branch, metal bottle caps and some strong thread, it took me about 7 minutes to make these “tambourines.” I simply flattened the caps and punched a small hole in the center of each cap. For one, I threaded the caps onto the pipe cleaner and tied it between the arms of the Y. For the other, I used a short nail with a big head. Either way, shake, shake, shake!

The Rain Stick

A real amazon rain stick is a long, hollow cactus stem that has had the thorns pushed back inside, and then has been allowed to dry. It is very similar to a maraca in that it is a hollow item with brittle objects inside. However, it is played differently. Rain sticks are tilted from side to side, and as the filler travels, it makes the sound of falling rain.

Several years ago, I made an Amazon rain stick from paper towel dowels, connected them with tape, added a handful of beads and put some popsicle sticks through and sealed up the ends. To play, tip the rain stick back and forth.

Max and I have also made rain sticks by inserting a long roll of crumpled tin foil into a dowel, adding beans and covering the ends.


Miscellaneous--ridged scrapers

A guiro is a simple Latin American percussion instrument. Basically it is a tube with ridges that is scraped with a stick or pick or rasp to create rhythms. In Lima, Peru, young kids create their own guiros from soda bottles with ridges and play them with plastic hair picks. It sounds fantastic.

I know that you won’t believe me, but I could not believe the great sound we got from scraping a chopstick across this old bedspring! We’ve also used water “ridgy” bottles, and plastic hose that our plumber left here.

a can and a stickbeaded scraper sticks

While not technically recycled, we made these beaded scraper sticks (left photo) by breaking the pointy tip off the end of the wooden skewers. Max rubbed a thick coat of tacky glue around the skewers leaving the bottom 4" without glue. We strung beads down the length of skewer until we reach the edge of glue. The final bead will need a generous dab of glue to secure. Bang them together to keep the beat or rub them together to make cricket sounds.

Max and his cardboard washboard

In school Max made this rub board from a scrap of corrugated cardboard.



My husbandís favorite style of dance is Zydeco. Zydeco is a popular style of folk music in southwestern Louisiana. Originally, in this style of music, washboards were used to create percussion sounds. Now, Zydeco musicians use stainless steel rub boards instead of washboards, but they work in the same way. Rub boards can be played with: drumsticks, church key openers, metal thimbles, drum brushes, screwdrivers, metal shoe horns taped to the fingers of work gloves and any other means your imagination takes you to. You could even try playing it with spoons and forks, but we suggest making sure all remnants of last night's dinner of red beans and rice have been removed.



chimes sand bucketChimes are made of metal and sound like a bell when struck. Some chimes have a definite pitch and can sound like a doorbell or clock.


This charming sand bucket made a simple, great wind chime outside our beach house!




The xylophone is one percussion instrument that is great for playing melodies. The xylophone has a long row of tuned bars made of wood or metal. The bars are arranged like a keyboard and mallets are used to strike the bars.

I made this xylophone by raiding our tool kit! All I did was lay a series of wrenches in the spaces between the bottom sections of a cardboard egg carton.


I hope that some of my comments and photos will inspire you to build instruments and make music with your child. But I do want to say that I think that in order to make music with your child, your view of and goal for the music must shift a bit. You’ll need to see music and instruments from your child’s point of view. You will need to recognize that they haven’t seen or heard many of the instruments that you might want to make, and that their creative ideas might take them to instrument design places that you could never have imagined.

So, spill your (washed) recyclables and bits of hardware out in front of them and simply turn on some music that you love. Relax and bang and glue and tape some musical instrument together, but at their pace. It’s hard to do, but relax your standards; try to engage in the design process and in the “music” making. Your recycled orchestra can provide pleasurable, multi-sensory experiences that challenge your child’s mind, invigorate their body and restore their spirit. Show your child how much you love making and listening to music and that you love it when they do too. I guarantee that you’ll grow a creative mind that might actually prefer the wonder and marvels of music to your iPhone.



Recent articles by Betsy Silverman:
Gift Wrapping Spring Gardening Fall Gardening Math Percussion Instrumnents
Gift Wrapping Gardening Math Percussion Instruments




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