Recycle Old Keyboards – Play Scrabble!

Part of any life-cycle of a typical classroom computer includes several bangs, forced restarts, pencil marks, dents, and eventually death. Usually I’ll spend a week each year talking about pollution and how much waste is created by tossing out old computers, keyboards, and mice that no longer function. This year I’m excited as I found a heap of old keyboard keys in the back of one of my cupboards (leftover from the previous tenant of the room). As I peered down into the sack full of yellowing keys and letters I thought of how best to re-use them, rather than just toss them out. And then it hit me! Scrabble!

Go Bears

I’m quite positive that this idea isn’t a new one, but it just struck me for the first time today as being a pretty effective way of dealing with aging technology (imagine how many students or classrooms would want a set for themselves), and address some state technology benchmarks. Namely, discussing ethical uses of technology with students should include not only using communication tools appropriately, but also how we treat our computers and dispose of them, seeing as they can pose quite the environmental hazard is simply thrown out. Heavy metals, precious metals, and other poisonous substances can be found in computer parts, and being ethical with them means finding ways to reuse and recycle the parts (reduction really isn’t an option if you want to encourage more use of technology).

And now that the educational worthiness speech is done…

Wouldn’t it just be fun to help your students tear apart old keyboards, popping off keys, mixing and matching them to create words? Just arranging the keys in the picture above got the interest of a few students in the lab at the time. They wanted to know if they were going to get a chance to play. Not only would they have a few technology related standards covered, but by using any spreadsheet program (Open Office Calc, Excel, etc.), you could create your own game boards, and have a blast working on spelling and/or language arts goals. It’s times like these when I wish I had my own class, and not the rotating schedule I have now. Perhaps I can convince a few teachers to tear apart some keyboards in the name of Scrabble.

Here’s a quick prototype I made of a scrabble board using Excel. A hint for those wanting to make your own; most keyboard keys will fit in 3/4 inch by 3/4 inch cells.



  1. We have the same problem with headphones that don’t work anymore. My students came up with a great idea. Cut off the cord and use them for playtime. First grade boys love to play astronaut and mission control while a lot of my third graders like to pretend to be pop singers!

  2. From time to time in computer class, it would be rediscovered by a child that, yes, the keys come off, and no, you don’t have to put them back in the same spot they came from.

    I found that I could give a speech about it, and talk about how difficult it made it for all the other students later, and offer up a keyboard on a table by the door and ask that, please, use this one if you would like to experiment. It was interesting to see what appeared….sometimes just that they were all in alphabetical order, or spelled things out.

    If you have someone that won’t stop their hunt and peck typing, it’s a great thing to switch out THAT keyboard with their normal one. If you’ve ever tried to type while looking at a keyboard that has the keys out of order…….aaagggghhhh.

  3. Well, sometimes you can’t do much other than throw things away. Honest.
    Everything we discard, including keyboards, goes to a firm that puts together lab packages for distribution at very low cost to poor areas, here and outside our borders.
    Truth be told, I hate the throw away society we have become. I lived with my grandmother in my final years of high school and everything, everything was reused until it just had to be thrown away. That included plastic wrap or “tin” foil. It drove me crazy at the time but I have come to respect just how “with it” she was.
    Before you go taking the keyboards apart, try to find someone who will turn those keyboards into a “computer system” that some child, somewhere will positively fall in love with.
    America, the rest of the world can live off of our trash.

  4. Kris: That sounds like a great way to use the old headphones. We have several ourselves that have needed replacing recently, and I might take the next batch down to the classrooms for them to play with.

    Andy: I LOVE the idea of messing with the keys for those hunt and peck typists. All I have to do is dig around the basement for some old keyboards (all of ours are brand new at school and I don’t want to start rubbing people the wrong way by re-arranging letters on them). I can’t wait to ask a student to try out my “special” keyboard, hehe.

    Rick: I would NEVER dream of throwing out any type of computer equipment because I didn’t need it anymore. You’re too right that lots of computer parts go to waste when they could be used for lower income individuals and families. I’ve actually been getting rid of several old computers at my house recently with the help of my wife via Yahoo’s Freecycle group. She posts them on the group, and others come to take them away for free, to turn them into workstations for senior centers and organizations in the community that donate computers to those in need.

    I’m referring to those keyboards that are completely useless because several keys no longer work, contact points have become damaged (fluid spills, etc.) or the cords have become accidently severed. Don’t ask me how, but I have two old ones from last year that had their cords cut.

  5. Just had to get my 2 cents in.
    Lucky for us (me) it is rare that we see that kind of (cord cutting) situation.
    However, we have a batch of computers that were donated to us which, alas, turned out to be less then were promised. So, before we recycle, Rick is holding a computer “take apart” time with the kids during guided recess. With teams of 6 to 8 students (all who sign up) we will dig into the guts of what changes those 1’s and 0′ into that pretty picture you did in paint and just take some cpu’s apart. This is a hard drive, this is ram, this is the motherboard, etc. (No, no monitors)
    Of course all parts will go out for recycle except for the odd hard drive we might actually dig into.
    Techonlogy education, leave no stome unturned.
    RE: Switching keys. Boy, that is just plain mean.

  6. As far as taking them apart goes…….this started with the IT Expo, which in Anchorage is still going strong each year. They hold a Super Tech Competition where they bring out identical systems that have been disassembled and all the parts dumped inside the case. It’s a race to see who can bring up the log in screen. It’s at the convention center downtown…..lots of people standing around, and different schools have teams. The competition is fun, but we have a dozen or so practice sessions, and that’s where kids learn the names of all the parts and why certain things connect to what. I’ve always saved some donated machines for practice, as the variety helps, and…..they don’t always live through it.

    So, does anyone NEED about a dozen AppleTalk boxes……???? Some of this stuff DOES need to be thrown away 8>).

  7. My first reaction was, OOOHHH! art project! I can totally see using the keys as part of a collage. But then again, I’m an artist first, techie second.

    Andy-awesome competition thing! Ben-we should totally suggest that to MACUL for something fun to do!

    I have been intrigued by the motherboards of computers lately and have been dreaming up a way to turn them into jewelry. Probably not the best way to recycle a computer, but then again… it would be so much fun to wear the guts of a computer, because they are quite pretty.

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