Composting in Elementary Schools

Making the Most of Compost

For a long time, only the most environmentally conscious teachers attempted to incorporate composting into their science curriculum. Composting, on the other hand, maybe a rich source of project-based learning, with subjects and activities that will engage children of all ages and abilities.

My Chicago elementary school has had a compost bin behind the building for more than a decade, and it is still in use today. Compost is avoided by a small number of teachers for the same reasons that so many others do: it is too messy, too smelly, and too much work.

While some colleagues remain skeptical, the majority of my colleagues have embraced composting and used it as the foundation for student-led modules that involve creative problem-solving. Students are drawn to composting because of its messiness and intricacy.


Compost raises important concerns for many teachers and students, and these inquiries might lead to in-depth investigations.

What is the process of decomposition? We utilize this question to launch into an investigation of the decomposers that can be found in a well-established compost pile: centipedes, millipedes, pillbugs and sowbugs, mites, and worms, among other things. A food web is developing just inside the compost pile, which is being constructed from our garbage. The larger species are wonderfully easy to find: students enthusiastically dig out, count, and place in terraria as many as they can find before moving on to the next task. Hand lenses aid in the discovery of tiny mites, springtails, and other insects.

There are a plethora of ways to interact with this creepy-crawly environment. In my basic lessons, students work in groups to determine if a bug is a vegetarian or a predator. I’m now engaged in a heated conversation with my second-grade students over whether worms require human protection against centipedes.

Worms are classified as a type of animal. In one of my school’s preschool classrooms, the teachers use a worm bin (basically a small, modular compost pile) to bring worms indoors for closer examination. However, our students construct one of these bins by punching or drilling air holes in a closed plastic storage box.

Following that, the box is filled with a layer of damp newspaper followed by layers of food waste and soil (all collected by students) before being colonized with worms. Either earthworms collected from the outdoors or red wigglers (Eisenia fetida), which can be purchased for less than $20 on eBay or from a specialized merchant such as Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm, are used in this experiment. Students keep an eye on the worms to discover out what they consume, what parts of their bodies they have, and how they reproduce and lay eggs.

What causes a compost pile to smell from time to time? An unpleasant stench is frequently caused by a poorly managed (or simply neglected) compost pile, and it provides an excellent chance for students to conduct research. One year, the outside compost container emitted an extremely bad odor and was surrounded by wasps, prompting us to clean it out. As a result, we organized a middle-school design competition to come up with a solution. Students conducted in-depth interviews with compost experts from the community in small groups and then compared their findings. It was unanimously agreed that our compost bin had far too much fruit and far too little “browns,” such as leaves and wood chips, which provide nutrients to decomposers and significantly reduce odors. In addition, the pupils came up with a solution. Shredded paper from the school office and paper towels from the toilets, as well as leaves gathered by pupils, are now being disposed of in the compost bin.

The question is, why aren’t more people composting if it is such a wonderful thing for the environment? Composting provides several obvious environmental advantages. Composting could replace landfilling for as much as 50% of the garbage currently disposed of. And the completed compost, which is dark brown in color, sweet-scented, and hummus-like inconsistency, is a soil amendment par excellence that can be used to replace synthetic fertilizers and make organic farming possible.

Once students understand the benefits of composting—as well as the fundamentals of composting—they will be well prepared to participate in projects that explore the social dynamics of garbage. Our middle school kids participated in a half-day program where they learned how to help families overcome their aversion to composting. Students highlighted frequent challenges, such as a lack of knowledge about what to compost and a lack of familiarity with how simple it is to compost. When they were finished, they designed marketing materials for the school compost program and even devised an incentive: a free tomato plant grown by students for every household that used the school’s compost bin.


If your school already has a compost system in place, it can serve as demonstration points for what can seem like a time-consuming procedure. Making compost from start to finish, from apple cores to gritty hummus, can take as long as six months in Chicago’s climate. A system that collects garbage daily means that there are always batches in various levels of decomposition—a time-lapse of materials changing from one form to another.

Furthermore, establishing a schoolwide compost system can be a motivating student-led project in and of itself—although it will necessitate more adult involvement than the units outlined previously.

Composting is a good fit for the ecosystems, matter, and energy curriculum covered in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). However, its application does not have to be confined to science; it may also be used to motivate math and literacy initiatives. Through the use of language, statistics, and photos, students of all ages may express the benefits of composting by charting progress and explaining how and why they are composting. For example, every fall, I have students design and distribute flyers in the neighborhoods surrounding the school, informing residents that the school is willing to accept their compost. Each student creates a one-of-a-kind flyer that must convey the importance of composting. They are always enthused by the prospect of communicating with a genuine audience—their neighborhood.