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Young Sprouts: Composting Activities for Kids

Activities and Play

2/11/2022 | Emily Jaeger

Whether your early childcare facility has full onsite composting or uses a pickup service, classroom composting is a hands-on way for kids to learn how to protect the environment. By collecting the appropriate food waste from their snacks and lunches each day, learners are empowered to use their own actions to green the planet. 

While some learners may already compost at home, for many it will be the first time. Not only do learners need guidance on what can go in the compost, they also need to know why composting is important if you want them to do it regularly. 

How to Explain Composting to a Child

Sometimes it can feel like a daunting task to try to explain complex scientific processes to toddlers. Fortunately, composting can be simmered down to one sentence: when we compost, we use leftover scraps of fruits, vegetables, and other plants to help make new soil

It may be helpful to go into a little more detail about decomposition: after we collect the scraps, we usually put them outside in a pile. Over time the scraps rot to make compost and we can use it in the garden to help plants grow big and strong. Stuff 4 Tots even combines this into a great infographic that could be modified for a classroom bulletin. 

It’s also important to explain early on what can and can’t go into the compost bin. The last thing your staff will want to do is root around in a bucket of food waste for a stray chicken nugget. The basic rule is any parts of fruits, vegetables, or plants are ok to compost (including cardboard since it comes from trees). However, meat, dairy, and pet waste are not advisable for small-scale composting. They can attract pests to the compost or contain harmful parasites and diseases. 

Exploring Nature

Composting provides an amazing entry into the natural world for children: the plant-life cycle, nutrition, soil science, bacteria, bugs, and more. One way to demonstrate the connection between the banana peels that you’re saving inside to the creation of soil is by observing the earth’s natural compost: humus. 

Humus--partially decomposed leaves, twigs, and other plant matter--is most easily found in the forest or at the base of trees. In addition to providing crucial nutrients for plants, humus is the visual halfway mark between a fresh fallen leaf and soil. 

If you have access to wooded areas at your facility, classes can take a “field trip” to observe humus in situ. You may even get to encounter some wiggly decomposers at work. Otherwise, collect some humus for children to examine in class (pull out some magnifying glasses for extra fun). What do they think humus is made of? What is the difference between humus and a freshly fallen leaf? Explain that by composting, we are making our own kind of humus to help the trees. 

Classroom Activities

There are also plenty of indoor sensory activities for your learners to enjoy. Educatall has a great list of relatively non-messy compost activities. Some of my favorites creatively incorporate movement and practice fine motor skills:

For your youngest learners, re-purpose play-kitchen fruits and vegetables for a composting station. Babies will enjoy manipulating the different objects, rolling, and placing them in different containers. For toddlers and up, create a compostable path by placing pictures of fruits and vegetables on the floor. Children can crawl or hop from one picture to the next and practice naming each one. 

Another fun way to practice composting is through art. Make compostable collages on cardboard or brown paper with natural materials (twigs, leaves, grass clippings, etc). For a bulletin, feel free to mix in more conventional art supplies for extra sparkle. 

Also check out our Young Sprouts blog about classroom vermiculture for more activities about some of nature’s best decomposers: worms!

Emily Jaeger is a professional writer with a background in education (she's taught every age group from preschool to retirement). Her writing has been featured on Parents Magazine, Kveller, Motherfigure and more. You can connect with Emily via her website emilyjaeger.com or on instagram @soulinparaphrase.

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