Teaching Kids to Compost and Its Benefits
Composting is an excellent hands-on science activity for kids. By composting, they will learn about the three environmental Rs (reduce, recycle, and reuse), what items are biodegradable, the importance of worms & insects, and much more. Children can use the finished compost they create in garden beds or container gardens to grow their own fruits, vegetables, or flowers. Not only does composting teach kids valuable lessons and create a useful end product, but it’s fun too. Here’s how to teach your kids about composting and its benefits.
What is Composting?
If your kids aren’t familiar with composting, you’ll want to start with teaching them the basics of what composting is. Composting is the process of recycling organic matter, such as leaves and food scraps, into fertilizer to enrich the soil. This short video gives an excellent overview of composting.
The Benefits of Composting
Now that your kids have a basic understanding of what composting is, teach them the benefits of composting. This should help perk their interest in the activity.
These are some of the main benefits of composting:
- Composting reduces waste, making us less dependent on landfills. Many items that would usually be thrown away can be composted instead.
- Compost can be added to gardens to enrich the soil. This reduces the need to buy synthetic fertilizers.
- Plants grown in compost-rich soil tend to be more resistant to diseases and pests. This reduces the need for pesticides that may contain harmful chemicals.
- Adding compost to gardens helps combat nutrient deficiencies in the soil. This adds more nutrients to the crops, resulting in healthier food.
- Compost attracts worms and microorganisms that are good for soil and plants. These organisms break down matter, improve soil structure, and help create a fertile environment for plants.
- Composting helps conserve water. This is because adding organic matter to soil increases its water-retaining abilities.
Make a Compost Bin
Before you get started composting, you’ll need a compost bin. Research different types of bins together and decide what type would best suit your family’s needs. Then allow the kids to help build the bin. If your family would like a large compost bin, you could build one out of recycled pallets, lattice, mesh wire, or even cinder blocks. For a smaller bin, you could use a plastic tote, five-gallon bucket, or milk crates. If you use something enclosed like a tote or bucket, remember to drill some holes in it for airflow. For more ideas and instructions, read 35 Cheap and Easy Compost Bins.
What to Put in the Compost Bin
One of the most essential parts of composting is knowing what items can be composted. So, take some time to teach your kids what they can put in the compost bin. Composting involves adding both green and brown materials to the bin. You’ll want to add the green materials and brown materials in alternating layers, using twice as many browns as greens. Having the right mix of green and brown materials will ensure that your compost pile works correctly. Without a good combination of browns and greens, your compost pile may not heat up, may take longer to break down into usable compost, or may even start to smell bad.
Brown materials consist of dry or woody plant material. Often, these items are brown, which is how they get their name. They add bulk and help allow air to get into the compost. Brown materials are also the source of carbon in your compost pile. Some examples of brown materials include:
- dry leaves
- wood chips
- shredded paper (newspaper, paper bags, writing paper, etc.)
- pine needles
- small twigs
- dryer lint
- shredded cardboard (only add cardboard that does not have a waxy coating)
Green materials consist primarily of wet or recently growing materials. They are frequently green in color, but not always. These materials are high in nitrogen and will supply most of the nutrients that will make the finished compost beneficial for your garden. Some examples of green materials include:
- grass clippings
- fruit and vegetable food scraps
- egg shells
- coffee grounds
- manure (cow, horse, sheep, chicken, etc.)
- annual weeds that haven’t set seed
What NOT to Put in the Compost Bin
Learning what not to put in the bin is just as important as knowing what can be composted. Teach your kids what not to put in the compost, and then they will be ready to take responsibility for taking scraps and other waste to the bin. These are some examples of things that should not go in the compost bin:
- meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, and eggs – creates an odor and attracts pests
- oils and greasy foods – slows the composting process and attracts pests
- pet waste – may carry diseases or parasites
- diseased plants – may spread disease to new plants when the compost is used
- inorganic materials – glass, plastic, and metal will not break down
Maintaining the Compost Bin
The compost should be turned every three or four days to aerate it and prevent compaction. Show older kids how to turn the compost using a pitchfork or shovel. To learn more about aerating your compost, read this article.
Explain to the kids that compost should be moist like a wrung-out sponge. If the contents are too dry, it will take a long time for the contents to break down. In this case, they can add some water with a garden hose or watering can and mix thoroughly. On the other hand, if the compost becomes too wet, it will start to smell. If this happens, they can mix in more dry brown materials to help dry it out.
If your bin is enclosed in a tote, bucket, or another container, you may want to have the kids add worms to help with decomposition. However, if your compost is sitting on the ground outdoors, this is not necessary. The worms and insects will come on their own.
When is the Compost is Ready?
How long it takes for the compost to mature will depend on many factors, including the compost’s materials, the type of bin, and how often it was turned. Compost is ready to be used when it is a rich dark brown color, smells like earth, and crumbles in your hand. Your compost is not ready yet if you still see recognizable food scraps, it has large lumps, or it is still warm. You may want to have your kids do this compost maturity test using radish seeds. The second half of this article discusses ten different ways to use your finished compost.
Free Composting Curriculum
If you’d like your kids to learn more about composting, check out these free resources. While they were created primarily for classroom use, most of the activities and lessons can be used at home too.
- Do the Rot Thing: A Teacher’s Guide to Compost Activities
- Spinning Scraps into Soil: Classroom Activities Using a Compost Tumbler
- Composting Across the Curriculum: A Teacher’s Guide to Composting
- Composting Education: Curriculum for Schools and Communities
- Composting for Kids
It is never too early to teach the basics of composting and its benefits. Composting can be a fun family project that allows everyone to pitch in and help. If you have any composting tips, please comment below.
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