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Composting: Practical and Educational

You probably encounter teachable moments on a daily basis as a homeschooling parent. Being self-sufficient lends itself to a wealth of opportunities for teaching your children about science, math, language, and history. Composting is one of those great chances for science education. And with a little creativity, you can turn the experience in to other lessons as well.

If you already compost your waste for the garden, you can get your kids involved and teach them about what happens in the compost pile. If you haven’t started composting, get the kids involved in learning about what compost is and how to start using it.

The Facts

First, it is important to understand that composting is a little more complicated than simply throwing the garbage in a pile and waiting for something to happen. With a little background information here and some more detailed information from other sites, you can educate yourself before discussing composting with your children.

Composting, in its essence, is a simple process: small organisms break down organic matter, turning it into rich soil. This resulting soil, also known as the black gold of gardening, goes by the scientific term humus. The first creatures to attack the compost are microorganisms. These include bacteria and fungi. Microorganisms break down the compost material chemically, meaning they change the chemical composition of the things you put in there.

Once the microorganisms have done some of their work and created more favorable conditions, the macroorganisms move in. These are critters like ants, mites, millipedes, centipedes, beetles, flies, snails, earthworms, and spiders. Unlike the microorganisms, these guys are physical decomposers. They break materials down into smaller pieces without changing them chemically.

Obviously, putting out organic waste will ultimately lead to decomposition, but there are several optimization factors. To make the process occur quickly, you need to have an appropriate balance of carbon to nitrogen in the compost pile. The ratio should be between twenty-five to one and thirty to one (carbon to nitrogen). As a rule of thumb, fresh, green materials are higher in nitrogen, and dry, brown materials are higher in carbon content. Too much carbon lowers the temperature of the compost, slowing the process, and too much nitrogen creates excess, stinky ammonia gas.

Other factors that are important in maintaining a successful compost pile are air, moisture, temperature, particle size, and volume. To increase air flow, the compost pile needs to be turned or aerated. For moisture, the pile should feel damp, but not soaking wet. The temperature of the compost needs to be between 90 and 140 ̊F. This means that composting may not happen in the winter. Compost will decompose faster if the pieces of waste are small. To do this, you can chop up or shred the waste before putting it in the composter. An ideal volume for a compost pile is one cubic yard. This helps to maintain the right internal temperature.

With the basic facts about composting and a little additional research, you are ready to get started. As you can see from the science behind it, composting is a great way to introduce come biology and chemistry concepts. Teach your kids science along with the practical uses of composting for fun lessons.


  • For younger children, have them help as much as is possible in the creation of the compost pile. Discuss as you go how bacteria and macroorganisms break the material into smaller pieces. Find picture books about gardening and plants to illustrate how this is related to the garden.
  • For older children, you can go into more detail about how the bacteria, fungi, and macroorganisms decompose the waste material. Give them independent research assignments to find out more about a micro or macroorganism of their choice. Ask them to present their research to show you what they learned.
  • For teenagers, discuss the details of the creatures that are composting the waste. Research and share information about the different types of bacteria and how they each contribute to the process. Go further into the roles of insects, spiders, slugs, and earthworms in the decomposition.


  • For younger children, discuss the very basic information about elements and the difference between nitrogen and carbon. After some research, have them draw pictures of items, plants, and foods that are carbon rich and those that are nitrogen rich. Discuss the fact that the compost needs to have a certain balance between the two.
  • For older children, talk about carbon and nitrogen and also discuss the difference between a chemical and a physical process. You can begin to get into chemical reactions at this point and learn more about how bacteria create them in the compost pile.
  • For teenagers, a more detailed talk about elements and chemical reactions can take place. They can also do their own research to find out what the chemical reactions are which take place in the compost. Also, ask them to find out about the terms organic and inorganic and what that means in chemistry.


Creating a compost pile is a wonderful hands-on opportunity for your children to learn about experimentation and the scientific method. Give them a question to answer or a problem to solve, and watch their creativity and love for science flourish.

  • For younger children, you can create a very simple experiment involving the conditions in the compost pile. You can even create small, indoor compost in a bucket, plastic box, or two-liter pop bottle to test different temperatures, moisture levels, or contents.
  • For older children, make the experiment a little more complex by testing two variables or creating multiple composting conditions. Let them take some of the initiative in planning and creating the tests.
  • For teenagers, integrate math and graphing and have them test several different conditions at once. Give them mostly free reign over the experiment with a little guidance.

Other Subjects

With a little thought, you can incorporate other types of lessons into your composting projects. Together, you can learn about the history of gardening and try to find out how far back composting goes. Research and learn about how the earthworm was transported from Europe to North America with the first explorers and settlers and how that impacted and changed the ecosystem.

For reading, writing, and literature lessons, you can find books about gardening and growing plants. Your children could even create their own books: how-to compost and gardening guides or a creative story about composting from the perspective of an insect or bacterium.

Composting is both a practical endeavor and a useful learning tool. Use it to get your kids active outside and to help them learn about various subjects. Be creative and also let your kids guide some of the learning. The more excited they get about a topic, the more they will learn.

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