The following is an excerpt from an NAEYC online author Q&A event with TYC authors Laura Colker, Louis Mark Romei & Holly Seplocha on the topic "Back to School Strategies." The Q&A took place August 8-12, 2011. To view more highlights from 2011 online Q&As, click here.
What are strategies for stretching my budget in the classroom? Specifically, on a very tight budget, I'm interested expanding the following: children's books, field trips, items for dramatic play, items for a science center, building materials, and art supplies.
Budget stretchers are on many teachers' minds, especially this time of year. Equipping a classroom when there are not adequate funds to cover everything you think you need is a challenge for everyone. Basically, in budget-stretching mode, we are in search of free or reduced cost items. There are some basic approaches to follow, no matter what type of items you are looking for. I'll go over these first:
- Ask for donations from local businesses. Often, businesses are happy to give you items as a tax write-off. This is especially true if they have inventory from a previous season that hasn't sold. Introduce yourself to neighborhood business owners so they know who you are and can contact you if they have excess inventory or want to do a good deed for their community. Don't just set your sites on big-cost items like computers and printers; items like wallpaper sample books can enhance your art area.
- Ask for donations from children's families. Be specific; put together a list of items that would be helpful to have and circulate it to parents. Very frequently, families are happy to donate items like old measuring cups and spoons that can be used both in the cooking area and in the home area of your dramatic play area.
- Frequent yard sales, dollar stores, flea markets, and online auction sites like eBay. Books, dress-up clothes, dolls, manipulatives, gardening supplies, and the like can often be picked up for very little money.
- Make your own props and materials. Some items like art supplies, science/discovery supplies, musical instruments, cardboard blocks, and the like can readily be made by you, the children, or the children's families. For example, you might want to work with the children in making the science substance ooblek and then experimenting with this unstable substance. Bigger items like blocks or a terrarium can be made at workshops with parents. Parents who are good at carpentry skills can be enlisted to make water and sand tables or set up woodworking areas.
- Share with a colleague. You can enrich your inventory by exchanging some of your supplies for new and different ones that your fellow teachers have. This is an especially useful way of augmenting the books, music, and puzzles available to your children.
- Hold fundraisers and bake sales with the express objective of buying a high-cost item such as a microscope or a digital camera.
- Look for grants. You might be surprised to find out what's available to teachers in your community. For example, pre-kindergarten teachers in 15 states can apply for a mini-grant from Qwest. Grants of $5,000 are awarded to promote the integration of technology in the classroom. Find more information here.
To answer your specific questions, here are some thoughts:
- Children's books. Look for used books at yard sales and garage sales, flea markets, thrift stores, and online auction sites. Goodwill is another good source for very inexpensive children's books. Exchange books with a fellow teacher or through an online book exchange. Check books out of your local library. Purchase children's books at sales held by libraries weeding through their inventories. There are also many discount book outlets that offer low-cost children's books. Don't forget to ask families for donations, too. Book clubs, such as Scholastic, will offer points towards free purchases of books. Scholastic and other publishers also often hold seasonal warehouse sales where books are offered for half price. Finally, encourage the children to make their own books using the computer, scanned photos, hand-drawn illustrations, or dictated text. Covers can be laminated and the bindings sewn, stapled, or fastened with brads. The October 2011 issue of TYC features an article on just this topic.
- Field trips. These can indeed be costly, and you want all of the children to be able to participate. To underwrite the costs, consider holding fundraisers or bake sales. Again, look for community or state grants. In Nebraska, for example, School Bus Arts Grants underwrite the costs of field trips and admission fees to attend arts events such as live music, dance, or theatre performances and cultural exhibits at museums or other venues. Sometimes field trip destination sites will waive admission fees for children. The St. Louis Children's Museum, for example, offers reduced admission fees at certain times of the year and free admission to classes with a high percentage of disadvantaged children. You might also broach a local business about sponsoring your field trips. Speak with their public relations department—this is good community relations for the business (and a tax write-off, to boot).
- Items for dramatic play. These are fairly easy to have donated. Many families have kitchen-related items and old clothing, shoes, purses, hats, and briefcases they are happy to donate. Doctors and vets are likewise good resources for old medical supplies. Goodwill and eBay are additional sources to visit for inexpensive purchases. Old clothing and household articles can almost always be purchased for very little money at yard sales, flea markets, and even consignment shops. Shop around—you are sure to find enough bargains to stock your dramatic play area with exciting fashions and equipment.
- Items for science center. Here is where you can make many supplies and activity materials. The Internet is a great resource for instructions on making classroom volcanoes, tornado bottles, and substances like bubble solution, gak, ooblek, glarch, glerch, goop, glrorax, silly putty, and flubber. NAEYC's The Cooking Book has a number of science recipes that children can make with teachers. You may find that a local nursery will donate plants and seeds for gardening, or at least offer these items at a reduced cost. Fortunately, a great many science materials are readily found in nature for free: shells, pinecones, leaves, insects, worms, etc. Recycling and compost bins can often be donated through grants. Coca -Cola, for example, offers schools and other community programs free recycling bins.
- Building materials. One set of materials that I always recommend teachers have is a full set of hardwood unit blocks. To keep your costs down, you may be able to purchase a used set at a yard sale or on eBay. Beyond this, you can be creative in your inventory of building supplies and props. As mentioned earlier, you can hold a parent workshop in which everyone makes cardboard blocks for the class out of used milk cartons. People and animal props, small cars and other vehicles, and wooden road signs can often be found at garage sales, thrift stores, dollar stores, and online auction sites. Home supply stores or hardware stores will sometimes donate an oversupply of gears, pulleys, and PVC pipes and fittings. You can ask carpet stores for remnants that the children can build on. Also, keep a box of recyclables with items like fabric and dried flowers handy for decorating constructions.
- Art supplies. Like science materials, many art materials can be made with the children. You can find recipes for a wide variety of paints, clays, doughs, and glues on the Internet and in NAEYC's The Cooking Book. These homemade materials are not only inexpensive, they are nontoxic, fun to make, and provide learning experiences for children. Storage places for art supplies can likewise be homemade: Upside-down egg cartons can hold scissors, and a six-pack beverage carrier can serve as a paint caddy. Children's paintings and drawings can be matted and framed using construction paper. As noted previously, wallpaper samples and other papers can be donated by local businesses. To make collages, you only need assemble a number of inexpensive or recyclable materials: seeds, bottle caps, doilies, feathers, flowers, netting, glitter, ribbons, sequins, toothpicks, and so forth.
I hope that these suggestions will spur your own ideas. Be creative and persistent, and I'm confident you will be able to assemble a classroom inventory you're proud of—even on a tight budget.