Teaching Vermicomposting to Kids

BlogHer Original Post

One of the benefits of earning my latest title - Master Composter - is that I am occasionally called in to service. For the past few months, it has been my great pleasure to visit second and third grade classrooms to introduce the joys of vermicomposting - as in, composting with worms. To an entire generation of local children, I am now known as 'The Worm Lady.'

It is impossible to exaggerate how much fun this is for me. I am always so impressed by the kids' enthusiasm, honesty and strangely brilliant questions. Among my favorites:

Do worms eat spaghetti? (Yes.)

Do worms eat other worms? (Not really.)

Do the worms try to escape? (Not unless they are very uncomfortable - too hot.)

How do worms make babies? (Worms are genderless and lay fertilized eggs.)

On this last question, one young boy offered, "I know how they make babies!" Grateful for the help, I let him tell the story to a rapt audience while I held my breath: "Um, they squirm around each other and...um, then, they, um, pull apart and make a big heart (makes a heart shape with his fingers) and then they are in love and babies come." They all looked at me for confirmation.

"That is.... absolutely CORRECT, Evan! Well done." Whew!

Along with my worm partner, Everett, we instruct the teachers and/or parents to provide the following:

  • Big, plastic bin (Rubbermaid or the like) with holes drilled in on the sides and bottom
  • Lots of newspapers
  • Bags of dead leaves
  • Bricks or wood for the bin to sit on (for drainage)
  • Water jug and water source
  • Tarp or something we can put down for demonstration to avoid making a huge mess.

What I bring:

  • Bulging ziploc bag of my food scraps
  • Two pieces of bread
  • Cutting board
  • Knife
  • Container of Red Wiggler worms

From the moment we step into the room, there is a hush of excitement. Every kid that can get to me wants to know only one thing: "WHERE ARE THE WORMS????" I feel like a celebrity handler or the guy with the PricewaterhouseCoopers briefcase at the Oscars.

The show begins with the teachers organizing them in a circle and reminding them of their manners. I have yet to meet a rude kid in these classrooms and if anything, fall madly in love with each one.

(Maybe because I don't have children, I have no reference point, but I've had teachers apologize profusely for the kids' being "completely out of control" but I have never, ever felt this way. If anything, I'm comforted by their enthusiasm and charmed by their goofy kid-ness. Perhaps my emotional immaturity is finally coming in handy....?)

I start by asking them questions like, "Who likes worms?", "Are worms our friends?" and "What do worms do for us?" I dazzle them with random worm knowledge, such as "Did you know that worms have five hearts?" or "Name the one state where worms don't live." (Hawaii.) Occasionally, I'll mention that there are over 4400 species of worms but, honestly, I don't know if that number is beyond them at this age.

Then, we start relating the preparation of the worm bin to their own lives. They live in a house so we are going to put the worms in their own 'house.' When they go to bed at night, the kids sleep in sheets and blankets; the worms will be sleeping in shredded newspaper and leaves. And so on.

Everett takes over the even distribution of newspaper among the kidlets and gently instructs them how to efficiently rip them into neat strips. They are so precise, it's adorable. Then, we gather up the paper strips and divide the class into teams.

We call each team up one by one to add leaves and water to the bin and mix around with their bare hands. At this point, I ask them about what it smells like. They usually say, "Dirt!" and we talk about how paper is made of trees, which come from dirt.

When the 'bed' is damp like a wrung-out sponge, I bring out the food scraps. So many of these kids compost at home, that they generally have an idea how it works. (I'm so impressed by this. Kudos to the parents and teachers!) I try to stick to what they should NOT be putting in the scrap bag, namely, meat, cheese and bones. Seeds too.

The other day, a young boy asked, "What about alcohol?" Um, no. Ditto for citrus and spicy peppers or jalapenos.

Ideally, one would take two moldy slices of bread to make a Worm Sandwich but I don't let that happen in my house so I come in with two clean slices. I put one on the cutting board, then dump some of the rotting food scraps on the bread and then add the other slice. There's lots of "Ewwww! Gross! I wouldn't eat that!" excitement going on during this so I like to slice it up like a proper sandwich and offer it to the kids. More squealing ensues.

Then, I place the food in the bin as a 'welcome meal' to the worms. At long last, the time comes to reveal the stars of the show. The kids all crowd around me, eager to see and touch a worm. I ask each child to have a leaf in their open palms and I will place a worm on the leaf so they can make an individaul kid-to-worm connection. They are to avoid 'petting' the worm but instead gently welcome it to their classroom and tell the worm they are grateful for their composting efforts. ("Denver Police? Yes, there's a pagan lady loose in the public school system and she's infecting our children....")

One girl got so excited about holding a worm the other day that she screamed and immediately dropped it. I had to stifle a laugh and advise: "If you think you're going to drop the worm, do not take one, okay?" They all nodded earnestly.

Then, we ask them to put the worms in the bin, their new home. Then, Everett and I discuss with the teacher what they need to know - feed the worms once a week, placing the food down deep, alternating sides, keep it moist and dark, then wait for spring!

Watching these precious angels look at the worms and thank them with such seriousness...my heart just explodes with joy. Every single time I do this, I feel markedly better about the state of the world.

If these kids can truly grasp and appreciate the natural order of things and the profound contributions of the tiniest being, then maybe the human race has a fighting chance.

~Heather

BlogHer Section Editor, LIFE & GREEN; Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns; Proprietor, ClizBiz

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