Kids and composting

Kids and composting were made for each other.

by Linda C. Puig



Sela Shiloni, left, and Zachary Rosanova struggle with a full-sized pitchfork to turn a pile of compost - good exercise and a good lesson in caring for the earth.

he kids may hold their noses. They may complain gleefully that it looks like vomit. But eventually, children will succumb to the magic and mystery of composting.

Composting is the living recycling process that turns nature's trash into treasure garbage into gold, so to speak. It's catching on throughout the country as a way to reduce garbage output and enhance the health and vitality of the earth's soil.

For children, composting at home or at school offers a rich learning opportunity. It often provides a critical missing link in nature's cycle of growth, decay and renewal. Children generally understand that seeds sprout and grow into plants that we eat for nourishment. But our culture, uncomfortable with death and decomposition, tends to cover up the rest of the cycle.

Composting shows children, almost before their eyes, how food and plant waste transforms into rich, reuseable dirt that nourishes the earth and its new growing plants.

"It's important to see that out of decay and death comes new life and rebirth," says Rob Farmer, a biodynamic composting expert. "If children experience that process of transformation in a real, concrete, hands-on way, consistently, it builds a picture of nature that gets them in closer touch with the reality of the natural world."

These experiences with the natural world are even more important for youngsters in today's "virtual reality" climate, where childhood threatens to become more and more simulated.

How you involve children in the process of composting can make the difference between disinterest and enthusiasm, groans and awe.

First, decide on which composting method to use. Worm boxes, in which worms eat the garbage and enrich the soil with their castings, might be best for you if you live in an apartment or have a small amount of kitchen scraps. A simple, backyard heap might work for your family. Or, you could organize a huge community compost pile or start one at your child's school.

Whatever the method, be sure to educate yourself. There are a variety of composting courses and resources throughout the county, from your local library to the county agriculture office. Also try the Internet.

If possible, it's a good idea to expose children to the entire process at once. Let them hold and sniff a handful of soft, sifted, sweet-smelling compost that's done. Poke a stick into the center of a compost pile in progress and let them feel the heat it generates. Then help them get to work on the "yucky" stuff, the sometimes stinky and sloppy kitchen scraps and the manure that boosts nutrient value.

"That's part of it," says Martha Prusinskas, who leads composting activities at the Waldorf School of San Diego. "They need to know that it's OK to deal with that."

How you describe the process of composting will vary, depending on age. For younger children, it's important to build pictures that can live in the child's imagination. Make composting the living, magical process it really is. For example, you may tell a story of little gnomes baking bread for Mother Earth because she asked for it. The children can then help their little friends help the earth. They feel good at the opportunity to make a contribution to Mother Earth.

"You can't talk about humus and colloids and organic molecules to 7-year-old kids," says Farmer, who also teaches gardening at Harriet Tubman Village Charter School. "If you burden children with that kind of information at too early an age, it won't live with them."

For older children, composting offers myriad opportunities for scientific exploration. Older kids can participate in a much more physical way. Last year, seventh and eighth graders at the Waldorf School created a huge biodynamic compost pile, measuring about 12 feet long, 15 feet deep and 5 feet high. Biodynamic composting involves carefully layering straw and alfalfa, manure, other plant material and food scraps in a tall pile, adding water and concentrated herbal preparations at each layer to increase the nutrients, microbial action and vitality of the soil.

The effort took all day, and children worked in shifts. While some students piled layers, others stirred the buckets of water with the herbal preparations and others wetted down the straw and plant material. They sold the resulting compost as a class fund-raiser.

Prusinskas says that when the piles are complete, they inevitably look like huge loaves of bread, an apt metaphor for the earth-nourishing properties of compost.

"When the kids see it in the shape of a loaf, it really clicks," she says. "But the gift is to let them see it for themselves, not to show it to them."

In her composting-building activities, Prusinskas sometimes suggests that students write down a wish or something they want to change about themselves on scraps of paper and add it to the layering of the compost pile. It's a nice touch, she says, and adds to the understanding that composting is a transformational process.

Prusinskas other suggestions for involving children in larger composting projects at home or the neighborhood are:

  • Be prepared, so that children are not standing around. Have your piles for layering all ready, and enough pitchforks, etc. Once children are distracted, you'll have a hard time reeling them back into the project.
  • Keep it fun. Some water squirting is inevitable, and straw fights at the end of the day are OK. Younger children might enjoy songs.
  • Have several tasks, or task stations, to avoid boredom and physical burnout.
  • If it's a day-long project, provide lunch.
  • Have extra adult help.

Once started, children can also help in maintaining compost piles. They can make sure it stays wet enough, check its temperature, take out the daily kitchen scraps, etc.

Composting not only results in a rich, stable humus that supports the quality and health of the plants you grow in it. It also results in children who are more in touch with nature and the soil.

And that can only be good for Mother Earth.

For more information, call the Waldorf School of San Diego, at 619/589-6404.