TACOMA, Washington — The Guardian reported in 2017 that plastic bottle usage is estimated to exceed half a trillion by 2021. The ease of single-use bottles has led to a rampant plastic pollution problem, with about 60% of plastics ending up in a landfill or littering the environment. Concerning for several reasons, plastic takes 1000 years to decompose. A growing education program at West Chester University of Pennsylvania saw treasure in this trash, turning bottle caps into hands-on and play-based learning for children. Cap Creations started as a local project to get affordable, sustainable learning tools into the hands of children. Since its creation in 2012, the program has grown internationally, spreading to hundreds of classrooms around the world.
A cap kit consists of bottle caps with letters, numbers or words written with markers. Anyone can make a cap kit by collecting bottle caps from everyday use: a milk jug, water bottle and ice tea bottle, among others. The caps get redirected away from the landfill and transformed into simple creative learning tools for children. Infinitely customizable, teachers and parents can create cap games to help children learn anything: math, science, literacy, even a second language. When set up as a game or puzzle, cap kits help children learn key skills and information while they play.
Student Lisa McMahon and professor Dr. Donna Sanderson collaborated to start Cap Creations when Sanderson had McMahon as a student in an early grades preparation course. Sanderson explained how new teachers often don’t have much money to spend on teaching supplies so they use very basic types of materials, like bottle caps—an innovative solution popular in schools in developing countries. A few weeks later, McMahon approached Sanderson with an idea of using the caps in local schools.
Dr. Sanderson on Starting Cap Creations
In an interview with Dr. Sanderson, she described the program with the kind of zeal and excitement that comes from a passion project like this. She explained Cap Creations keeps adding new “tentacles”—from the increased education students are getting to the therapeutic benefits special education high school students gain from packing cap kits to the sustainability aspect of keeping caps out of the landfills. Dr. Sanderson later established a partnership with Wawa to receive bulk plastic cap donations, letting her and her students create more kits for teachers and parents.
The cap kits have worked successfully for grades pre-kindergarten to fifth grade and, in some cases, middle school. Teachers can use the caps however works best for their teaching material. “It’s hands-on and play-based. They think these are game pieces, and when you turn learning into a game more children are apt to want to play and hang in there and be engaged,” Sanderson explained. “Child development theory, learning theory—it is truly based in how children learn, and when I say children I mean all types of children: children who speak English, children who don’t speak English, children that live in inner cities, live out in the fancy suburbs, live in foreign countries. Children learn in the same way. That is one of the magic bullets of [Cap Creations] that makes it so it can reach many different children. It is based on learning theory.”
The Growth of the Cap Kits Program
Dr. Sanderson and a group of handpicked West Chester education students regularly visit schools and teach parents how to use the kits with their children. Upwards of 60 teacher in-services have also occurred. After the program’s first international service trip to Costa Rica, it started to expand more internationally. This growth gave the program the ability to visit communities most in need of simple, affordable learning tools like the learning caps.
When the pandemic hit, Dr. Sanderson was in Guatemala in-servicing schools. Of the teachers she was able to share the cap kits with, she described the experience as her “best in-service ever. . . Those teachers who are used to really not having a lot of materials or money or supplies—I didn’t even have to ask them to be creative. . . I think because they were so thirsty for information, hungry for knowledge, grateful that I was there. . . I could see how jazzed they were. . . [It was unfortunate that] about three days later, their schools shut down [due to COVID-19].”
“I kept thinking [it would be for young kids only]but what started happening is reading specialists, special education teachers, ESL teachers—they started coming to me and saying, ‘These are great tools, this really helps the type of learners we are working with,'” said Dr. Sanderson. She estimates the program has dispersed about 2000 pre-made kits, although word of mouth has led to teachers and parents making their own. In terms of access to caps, Dr. Sanderson says the countries she has visited could easily source caps from the community’s plastic bottle usage.
While single-use bottles still pose a significant threat to the planet’s health, Cap Creations represents one instance of the phrase, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Cap kits as learning tools decrease plastic pollution while providing affordable fun sustainable learning tools for children of all backgrounds. The ingenuity that teachers and parents exhibit when making up their own games with the caps shows the possibilities for creating something out of seemingly nothing.
– Maria Marabito
Photo: With permission from Dr. Donna Sanderson