These days, everyone is thinking green! And not a moment too soon, if recent studies are correct.
Over 600 species of plants have gone extinct in the last 250 years, and the effects of climate change are thought to be the cause of increasingly extreme atmospheric conditions and fluctuations in weather patterns. If these trends continue, large portions of the landscape could become arid and even uninhabitable, forcing mass migrations and concentrations of population into smaller and smaller areas.
Decades of corporate expansion has resulted in a return to bad farming practices, once termed “slash and burn,” which were outlawed centuries ago due to the damage they caused. Insecticide and fertilizer run-off from agricultural corporations has poisoned the water supply, which is already overflowing with anti-depressants, as well as antibiotics fed to animals on livestock and dairy farms.
More and more, people are taking control of what they eat and drink and how it is made. Sustainable living is a growing trend, and a healthy one at that. Pursuing sustainable practices is no high-minded lifestyle, and is very unlikely to solve the world’s problems, but it is a good place to start. Getting children involved in sustainability at an early age is also the best way to ensure them a clean and healthy future.
Composting is fun, easy, and a perfect opportunity to teach children about Biology, Health, Nutrition, Agriculture, Sustainability, and much more. It also recycles food scraps, paper, grass clippings, trash, and leaves that would otherwise be thrown away. Compost improves the quality of your soil, saves you money on store-bought fertilizer and plant food, and helps keep your yard tidy. Best of all, your flowers, plants, and vegetables will grow taller and stronger, and also taste better.
You already have everything you need to get started: Dirt, dead leaves, kitchen scraps, old newspaper, and water. You will also need a shovel or pitchfork for turning the compost, and a rake for collecting leaves and grass clippings. You can start a compost heap at any time of the year, though Fall is usually when most people start since there are plenty of leaves to gather. Meats and fatty foods, metals, plastics, styrofoam, and some other materials do not break down, so be sure to separate them from your composting scraps.
Done correctly, it is safe even if a little… fragrant. Because of the smell, and the fact that it is likely to attract insects and rodents, you want to be sure to choose a spot away from your house. You will need somewhere with partial shade but not a dark area, as the compost heap needs sunlight to process. Do not place your heap on concrete or any other surface; it should be heaped on the ground. It will kill the grass beneath it and stain concrete, so you want a place where that is not going to matter.
Container or Open Pile
You can also compost in a container. Below, we are going to show you how to compost in a see-through container as a project, but this is specifically for teaching the children about the process. Almost any kind of container works but, if you use something like untreated wood or a cardboard box, it is going to rot through eventually and will need to be replaced.
Old trashcans make great compost containers. Just be sure to poke some holes in the bottom of whatever you decide to use to allow the air to circulate, otherwise the compost will not decompose properly. Home improvement and gardening supply stores also sell a variety of prefabricated compost bins, as well as plastic tubs that make great composters.
If you want to see the process like in the experiment below, or want for your kids to be able to see it, you can also create a container from three or four stakes or fence posts and some wire mesh. This keeps the lighter items from blowing away, too. An old laundry hamper already has holes, if you want to try that – just be sure not to pile it too deep or you won’t be able to turn it. You do not necessarily need a container; after all, it is called a compost heap for a reason!
Although it is rare, there is also a slight chance of spontaneous combustion, but this should not occur if you turn the compost heap regularly. Turning it also speeds up the composting process. You should never leave fertilizer in direct sunlight for long periods, even if it is in a bag. Always store it in a cool, dry place.
Once you have chosen the location for your project and decided on a container (if you are going to use one), the rest is simple:
Layer in the materials, starting with dirt or fertilizer, then an inch or two of leaves and grass clippings, then your newspaper and food scraps. Repeat this process until you are out of materials or your container is full. Finally, water the pile thoroughly.
Keep a small trashcan, coffee can, or covered bowl in the kitchen for collecting food scraps. Fruits and vegetables break down the quickest and easiest, even those that have been cooked. Eggshells provide calcium your mixture needs but most other animal by-products are unusable. Coffee grounds and tea leaves are great, including the teabags (without the staples).
Bones, meat, fats, and pet droppings should not be included – except for herbivorous pets (horses, rabbits, chickens, et. al.). Pet and human hair can be used sparingly. Newsprint and brown paper work well but slick paper, like magazines, takes longer to compost. Similarly, solid wood products like sticks and twigs will work, but should be broken into small pieces or run through a wood chipper first, if possible.
Maintain a good balance of brown and green materials. Brown materials provide the correct bacteria and green materials provide the heat. A ratio of three to one is best: 3 brown to 1 green. Keep the pile moist but not soaking wet. If you are using a container, cover it to minimize the smell and keep it from attracting wildlife; a good layer of soil works as a cover for open heaps.
The pile needs to be turned once every week or two. Ideally, you want to move the stuff from the inside to the outside, the stuff on the bottom to the top, and vise-versa. Let the kids help with spades or plastic shovels. Once you have displaced the pile, aerate it with the pitchfork.
You should be able to start using the mixture within three to four months. If you are continually adding to it, this is only an estimate.
See-Through Container Project
This fun project lets kids see the composting process as it occurs. It is suggested that you start it at the same time as your outside heap, but you could also do it over the winter then use the result as an activator for your larger pile.
Everything is the same as for the larger project except the container, which can be anything you can see through. A 2-liter cola bottle or even a Mason jar works great, just remove any labels.
Start with a layer of soil, then add green material, then kitchen scraps, then paper scraps, and repeat until the jar is full. If you look at the bottle, you should be able to clearly see the layers inside. To finish, add enough water to fill the jar about halfway. Remember to poke holes in the lid of the jar and cover the bottle. Set the project somewhere safe where it can get enough light to activate.
We suggest giving each child their own container. Use a permanent marker to label them and keep your own container as a “control” group.
Any number of learning activities can be based around your see-through container project. See the list of suggestions at the end of the page for some ideas.
While the see-through project is primarily for educational purposes, you can compost indoors. This will save you a few steps both when dividing your recycling and literally from carrying your scraps outside.
Any non-porous container works but you probably do not want to use anything larger than about five gallons or the stench can become overpowering. You could even use a large coffee can, though this might be too small. Indoor bins are commercially available if you do not want to create your own.
Drill or poke holes in the bottom and top of your composter. Set your container on a tray to catch any liquids and store it in a dry place out of the way. Under the sink is a good idea, although the garage or anywhere it will not be disturbed by kids and pets is fine.
While creating your compost is largely the same, there are a few differences with an indoor setup. The first is placing your newspaper on top of the first layer of soil. You want to use a lot of it so that it helps soak up the liquids. Another difference is to be certain your food scraps are shredded into pieces no larger than about 2”.
Finally, you need to stir the mixture at least once a week, occasionally adding another layer of soil and newspaper, so keep a spade handy. If it begins to smell, just add another layer of soil to the top after you finish mixing it.
When your container is full, let it set, covered, for at least one week to fully decompose. It is then ready to use on your houseplants; indoor herbs, fruits, and vegetables; and anywhere else — indoors or outdoors. Note that if you are starting seeds, you should use soil and not compost.
Indoor composters are fun for kids, as they are easy to maintain and need stirring often. Plus, children will enjoy tearing the newspaper and food scraps before adding them to the container.
Gettin’ Wiggly with It
Vermicomposting is composting with worms. While it is more involved, it offers even more learning opportunities for students. Besides, kids like worms and worms like compost, so it’s a win-win! In fact, worms are great for compost heaps, as they aerate the soil.
For this, you will need a larger container for your worms – at least 10 gallons or more – and a smaller, wider container to catch the run-off (and any worms that try to run off, as well!). Both containers can usually be found at local general stores and are not very expensive. You also need some screen mesh – not metal because you do not want it to rust and ruin your mixture — and enough shredded newspaper to make a layer at least 3-inches thick or more.
In the top, drill four one-inch holes about two inches apart, then drill one hole on each side. Wipe the container well then glue the screen mesh over the holes on the top and sides. Drill two more, smaller holes on the bottom for drainage. You do not necessarily need screening over the holes on the bottom since the worms are unlikely to escape through them. If they should, they will not get much farther than your overflow container.
Mix the soil and newspaper well, spraying it until it is damp but not dripping wet – about the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. Cover the bottom of the large container with your soil and newspaper mixture, then place your worm farm inside the overflow container.
You can buy worms at a bait shop or collect them from your yard (or somewhere else). This would certainly be a fun project for little ones! Drop them on top of the soil and they will burrow into it. Cover with your screened lid and leave them alone for at least one week. It will take them this long to adjust to their new home. Do not feed them during this time; they will get the nutrients they need from the soil.
Shred your table scraps into pieces no greater than 1/3” in length and store them in a coffee can, jar, or covered bowl. After a week, start placing your kitchen scraps into the container, about one cup (1 C.) at a time. Only do this once per week to give the worms time to break down the food. If you notice they are not eating something, just stop putting it in there. Adjust the amount and frequency as necessary. Drain the outer container monthly so the liquid does not go back into the compost.
Once your bin is full, start feeding the worms on one side only. After about two weeks, you can start removing compost from the other side. By switching the sides on which you feed them, you can keep removing the usable compost your worms create.
While vermicomposting is great fun for the kids and offers many educational opportunities, it may be more labor intensive than most people prefer. However, it is a great way to teach children about how Nature works as a self-sustaining biological system which has evolved over billions of years.
If you have the room, the Bokashi Method is another form of composting that kids might enjoy. However, it involves purchasing elements instead of recycling them. It certainly presents many educational opportunities regarding Biology and Science, but the other forms we discussed above are cheaper and still provide chances to teach them lessons in these subjects.
Time to Fertilize
Your compost is ready when it is no longer warm to the touch and is a nice, even, brown color throughout. It should be soft and crumbly. If it is not ready and you place it in your potted plants or spread it over the soil you wish to tend, it will rob it of nutrients as it continues to process.
Whatever method or container you use, you should be able to reap several batches of compost from your pile throughout the year. Generally speaking, the material at the bottom is the most usable. Your first batch will be ready three to four months after starting. You may have to separate chunks that have not broken down by hand, or you can use a pitchfork or spade. If you collect as you go along, just put the chunks back into the pile so they can continue composting.
Lessons and Educational Ideas
Below are a number of educational ideas to bring up with your kids while composting, including links to news sources and other sites that offer more information on a host of interesting subjects. Some of these are better suited for certain ages and we have tried to include a good mix for different age groups, subjects, and interests.
The links provided below are for you and not the children. These may include news sites where younger people could encounter materials inappropriate for their age group (war, crime, etc.). They are provided for edification and also for use as a jumping-off point in your own research. There are also sites dedicated to homeschooling and lesson plans based around composting and personal farming.
- Circle of Life. Remind the kids of the fruit they ate before putting the remains into the compost pile, then explain to them how its decomposition will provide nutrients for another fruit bearing plant. This is perfectly illustrated when you use the collected compost to provide nutrition to your plants but you do not have to wait until then to bring up salient points.
- Conservation. Composting reduces waste by recycling organic materials. Sustainability is one area to discuss, while pollution is another. Reports indicate that landfills around the world are growing at an alarming rate and a dispute between Canada and the Philippines over trash disposal recently made headlines when it became a major international incident lasting many years. China began refusing America’s garbage in the recent trade wars between the two superpowers. What else can be recycled outside of our compost piles? What are some examples of wasteful practices that can be changed? Discuss the “Plastic Island.” How does planting trees help the environment?
- Sustainable Agriculture. How does growing your own food help you and the environment? Transportation costs, fuel depletion, and traffic pollution associated with produce shipping can be avoided, as can unhealthy preservatives and additives. There is also a sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency that comes with providing for one’s self. What are some of the bacteria and fungi involved in the composting process, and what function(s) do they perform? Name some of the different farming practices in use today.
- Healthy Lifestyles. Is the trade-off in time and effort worth the money saved? What are some of the health benefits? What are some healthy, nutritional recipes you can make with the food you grow at home? What is a healthy weekly menu that incorporates some of these dishes? What are some of the items you can’t grow or make at home and have to buy at the store? Make a grocery shopping list for the week based on a modest budget.
- Geopolitics. As mentioned above, trash collection and storage has reached crisis levels across the globe. Western countries, in particular, have nowhere left to dump our garbage! Much of this is due to excessive product packaging and the fact that we are more financially prosperous than many other regions, so we consume more. What can be done with all of our non-recyclable waste? What are some processes used for reconstituting plastics? Why do some materials break down, or compost, while others do not?
Composting is an efficient, inexpensive, and ridiculously easy way to immediately improve our everyday lives and help the environment. It also provides ample opportunities for teaching children about Science, Biology, Agriculture, Sustainability, the environment, and more.
The personal benefits, environmental impact, and educational opportunities make composting a fun and affordable family project!
Image on page credentials: