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Self-Guided Family Play and Exploration: Composting

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Course description

Composting transforms food scraps and decaying plant material into nutritious plant food. Explore the amazing changes that happen in a compost bin, and make your own “compost stew,” with these activity suggestions from our early childhood team.

A plastic bottle, grass and flower cuttings and a pot of dirt are on a cutting board.

What Is Compost?

In nature, tiny organisms like insects, snails, earthworms, millipedes, fungi, and bacteria break down fallen leaves and old vegetation into nutrients that trees and other plants need to survive. These organisms are nature’s recyclers – they take decaying materials and turn them into life-sustaining elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. The nutrients are absorbed by plants to grow new leaves, add new branches, and multiply. The cycle is then repeated, keeping the entire ecosystem healthy and thriving.

You can enlist the help of these same organisms to feed the plants in your care, as well! You can recycle leaves and other plant-based materials, like kitchen scraps, at home by setting up a compost bin. The result – compost, also called humus – will help your flowers, vegetables, or other plants in your garden or containers grow tall and strong!

You will need four main ingredients to create compost:

  • Organisms that will break down the food scraps and decaying materials – these can be bacteria and other microorganisms that live in garden soil or in existing compost, or worms such as the red wigglers you can find in any fishing supply store;
  • Organic materials, preferably an equal mix of “brown” things, such as dried leaves, shredded newspapers, or brown paper bags, and “green” things such as grass clippings and fruit and vegetable scraps;
  • Water;
  • Air.

You can mix these simple ingredients in a variety of containers, from a simple plastic bottle or indoor worm bin to an open-air bin. Check up on your compost bin weekly to see the bacteria or worms at work, and wonder together at the crucial role that even the tiniest organisms play in earth’s community of life!


Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for the Earth, by Mary McKenna Siddals and illustrated by Ashley Wolff.
What do you need in order to brew a large pot of compost? From apple cores to zinnia heads, gets lots of ideas for ingredients that will make Mother Nature say, “Delicious… compost stew!”

The cover of the book, Compost Stew.

Diary of a Worm, by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Harry Bliss.
Some of the things that a young worm needs to learn are familiar to us, such as manners and playing with friends, but others are less so, including digging tunnels and not interrupting parents while they’re eating the newspaper.

The cover of the book, Diary of a worm.


Take a handheld mirror with you on a short walk outside, and place it close to the ground in various locations (in a grassy lawn, on a sidewalk, under a flower, near a tree trunk, etc.) to experience how an earthworm might see the world. Which location seems safest, and which seems scariest, from the worm’s perspective?

Back inside, use cloth, felt, markers, or other materials you have on hand to tell your own worm story. The possibilities for imaginative play are limitless, but here are two examples to get you started!

All the materials you need to make a worm sock puppet.


Grab a basket or a bucket and search for materials to make your own compost! Look for plant materials such as dried leaves, grass clippings, twigs, or mulch in your neighborhood or backyard, and for fruit and vegetable peels, paper towel rolls, or discarded newspapers in your home. Chop or tear everything into small pieces, layer or mix them in a see-through container such as a two-liter plastic bottle (don’t forget to add a few handfuls of soil and some water) and, just like that, your compost stew is brewing!

Fruits, veggies, grass clipping and soil can all be composted in a plastic soda bottle.

For Older Siblings

Explore the life and legacy of George Washington Carver, an American scientist who was born into slavery but went on to develop a world-renowned agricultural research center at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and taught generations of students and farmers how to improve their soils. The picture book, In the Garden with Dr. Carver, by Susan Grigsby and illustrated by Nicole Tadgell, takes readers through a fictionalized visit by George Washington Carver to a rural farming community and describes several soil improvement techniques, including composting, advocated by Carver. Check out this and other children’s and young adult books on George Washington Carver at your local library!

An outdoor compost bin is filled with grass clippings.

Self-Guided Family Play and Exploration: Composting