Kids love it when grownups allow them to say the word “poop.” You’ll hear that word a lot at Butter Beans summer camp. But never fear, parents–our “poop” has a purpose.
“You mean that dirt is mostly worm poop?”
“Wait… everything we eat comes from worm poop?!”
These are the kinds of “a-ha” moments you’ll hear during Compost Week, often tinged with equal parts disgust and delight. When campers are hovering over the compost bin, which is home to a thriving worm community, poop-related epiphanies tend to unfold. Our slippery ambassadors of the soil also prompt the children to look at the dirt outside on field trips more closely, to learn about the relationships between composting animals and our food, and to see the circle of life in a new light, through the eyes of a red wiggler worm.
As it turns out, once you begin talking about compost, you quickly find that you are talking about everything else: where food comes from, where it goes, what does and doesn’t get recycled, and what happens to living things after they die. (Sometimes this means you’re edging into spiritual territory, and other times, you really are just talking about poop.)
During Compost Week, our discussions became so rich and multifaceted that we decided to help the children map out the connections they were making during an afternoon at camp.
During center time, in which children work in small groups, we arranged materials across a few tables to help students consider and record their thoughts on this frequently-asked question: “Where does our food come from?” The children had just enjoyed a guest chef lesson with Rowena Scherer, founder of the new just-for-kids meal kit company Eat2Explore (check it out!), in which they had made veggie wontons, so we made wontons the food of focus.
For our concrete, hands-on learners (and what kid doesn’t fit that description?), we placed visual “clues”: the package for the wonton wrappers, the recipe, and a drawing of a worm in soil to encourage them to think about “where” as the place where the plants themselves originated. (Kids later rightly pointed out that the wonton concept originated in China, but strictly speaking, the wonton wrappers hailed from Jersey.)
On a second table, we arranged activities and materials to help students consider and record their thoughts about the first question’s flip side: “Where does our food go when we’re done with it?” Here, we placed the scraps from our wonton cooking lesson, along with some plastic packaging from the produce and other assorted cooking lesson castoff materials. We established bins for compost, recycling and landfill, labeling them with happy worms (for materials that can be composted) and unhappy worms (for landfill) for younger students who are not yet reading or writing.
After we had laid out these materials, we divided the group into same-age teams, with our older, “big picture” thinkers taking the first crack at the first question, and our younger children pulling on plastic gloves and getting their hands dirty as they grappled with the second.
At each table, teachers and students worked together to chart their discussions using large chart paper. The results were inspiring.
In the first group, teachers listened and began to create a mind map on the wonton poster as the children explained to each other what a wheat plant looked like, and drew scallions reaching their shallow roots into the worms’ soil on the poster. Mental lightbulbs went off as they looked at pictures of soybeans and realized that favorite Asian foods like edamame, tofu and soy sauce all stemmed, quite literally, from the same plant.
In the second group, children talked about what kinds of foods from the pile would be good for the worms to eat (in other words, biodegradable), and which would not be good for worms (not just plastics, but also bread, citrus and dairy products). They felt proud that they had taken good care of our friends in the bin.
Then, the groups were encouraged to intermingle. The older children came to visit the compost sorting station, and began to record the younger students’ ideas on a T-chart, listing which ingredients were biodegradable and which were not.
The younger children then made their way over to the map of wonton ingredients, with the very youngest pre-readers representing their ideas through drawings. They got busy sketching the bees that brought the honey for our wonton, adding roots to all the plants pictured (and a few extra worms for good measure). We also observed them engaging in intense discussions about the accuracy of each other’s animals and plants, discussions that provided a detailed window into their collective thinking. (A pair of twin five year olds in particular disagreed about whether a queen bee, who now dominated the top right corner of the poster, should be depicted as flying, as queen bees were flightless. The illustrator of the queen bee solved the problem simply, she explained, by adding worker bees as her attendants to carry her through the sky on a magic carpet. It is difficult to overstate how much we love the magical realism of kindergarteners!)
Taken together, these activities provided not only a way for the children to collaborate and share their knowledge on the big ideas we featured during Compost Week, but also a way for us to pre-assess their prior knowledge of the complex food system, and thus to design better future instruction for them.
All of our work at camp HQ also helped the children feel like experts when they capped off Compost Week with a trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where they got to learn how the master composters there keep the circle of life going in large containers that dwarf our small classroom bin. Our guide, Claudia, helped them to answer the burning questions they still wished to answer, about worms (“How can you tell a baby from a grown-up?”) and gardening (“How do you make the compost go faster?”). She was thoroughly impressed by all of the knowledge they brought to the garden classroom table. (She also allowed them to say “poop,” always a plus.)
For parents welcoming home campers from Butter Beans summer camp who come bearing stories of thrusting their hands into poop, and demand for the family to start its own worm bin in their sweltering New York apartments, we offer the same combination of “Sorry” and “You’re welcome” that we offer when sending home chef knives and high-maintenance seedlings, the other common trophies for a Butter Beans graduate. Taking responsibility for our food system, from soil to table and back to soil, isn’t pretty, nor is it low-maintenance. But for families and kids who think it’s important to dig deep, to figure out where all of this stuff around us comes from and where it’s all going, a Butter Beans camp classroom is an excellent place to kick off (or continue) that conversation.