Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Beyond the Three R's

Our school garden allows us to expand beyond tikkun olam and explore and practice the principles of bal tashchit.

Often, it is difficult to create meaningful opportunities for young children to feel that their actions are repairing their world. Let's face it, we as adults feel overwhelmed by the task. Most children see aluminum cans and plastic being recycled, but how can they make choices about reusing and reducing? What we have discovered at the gan is a way for children to directly practice reducing their waste by composting.

Creating rich humus through composting provides a living lab for studying life cycles. As children begin to understand decomposition, they begin to understand the interdependence of all living things. This awareness makes an easy segue into the concepts of tikkun olam and bal tashchit.

Composting is one of the original objectives of our garden. The classrooms collect organic waste from snack and lunchtime to bring to the gan's compost bin. The first two years we used small snap lid containers for collecting the waste. A few months into it, we began to have fewer and fewer classes participating. By the end of year two, only a handful of teachers were still collecting. A typical complaint was the smell and the inevitable arrival of fruit flies. Last year, we did not have enough humus to properly amend the beds.

This year with the strong commitment of our school Director, we have re-energized the compost program. Each class, beginning with the two year olds, has a compost bucket with a snap lid and handle. The lid has a charcoal filter which eliminates odors. We ordered these from Gaiam, but I have noticed some of the gardening stores are selling them. Each class determines whether they wait for their scheduled time in the gan, or whether they want to bring the compost bucket out when it is convenient.

Some teachers have created photo boards depicting the step by step process for collecting and adding to the compost bin.

Most classes have added shomer adamah to the class job list. The shomer for the week helps collect the waste and carries the compost bucket to the gan. This routine is working nicely. Even some of the more resistant teachers are buying into the practice because they see the learning benefit for the children.

A compost bin was one of the original garden structures. This design is a bit unconventional, but is easy to use. It has an added feature of a Plexiglas floor so that children can lay underneath and look up to see the activity in the bin. With a large door that swings wide open, and the elevated platform, the children get an eye level view of the worms and other decomposers at work. Because it is raised, I added red wrigglers the first year.

This year, we have added a second compost area, much less formal in design. I had been given a roll of chicken wire at some point ( you'll soon find that once you seriously start recycling and composting you become the recipient of everything!) so I simply added a few posts for side support and had a cheap, instant compost bin.

Another compost set up is the vermicomposting unit which we keep in the Living Science room. It consists of several stackable trays for processing food waste into nutrient rich worm castings. We purchased the Worm Factory from Kidsgardening online. They have several different options.

One of our teachers decided to bring the vermicomposting experience into the classroom by making a worm bin out of a Rubbermaid snap lid storage tub. She and her co-teacher are providing daily moments for practicing recycling and reducing. The teacher commented that with the bin in the room, the children have an immediate connection to the compost process. Instead of putting organic waste into a collection bucket and waiting, they can place it directly into the worm bin. They can reach in and feel the worms and witness the food disappear over the week. Another bonus of having the bin in the classroom is that it allows for emergent learning opportunities. One day, the children did a math lesson by measuring worms with unifix cubes.

According to the EPA, more than 60 percent of the contents of our municipal landfills is potentially compostable. What better way to begin tikkun olam than by taking the tangible waste we create and turning it back into a life source.

Some useful resources are:
Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin
The Rodale Book of Composting

Backyard Composting published by Harmonius Technologies

Soil Science from the Delta Science Readers series

Wonderful Worms by Linda Glaser

Project Seasons by Deborah Parrella

Alumot published by Teva Learning Center


 (good info on vermicomposting)

Also, check your local Master Composter network. They are required to volunteer a certain number of hours to the community, similar to the Master Gardener program.

Post your questions or comments. Share your ideas and stories.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Holidays in the Gan

Our Jewish calendar provides us with abundant opportunities for meaningful learning experiences. No sooner do our little learners settle into the routine of school, then we have the excitement of the fall holidays. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur , Sukkot, and Simchat Torah can be a bit daunting when trying to create understanding and appropriate experiences for young learners. Using nature can re-energize your holiday curriculum.

At Gan Shalom, children witness bees pollinating flowers. They become aware that even small insects contribute to our world. And when they dip an apple slice in honey for Rosh Hashanah, they make a direct connection to what they observed in the garden. This year, we invited bee keepers to visit, and the children tasted honey made by local bees. The bee keepers brought pollen and honeycomb for the children to investigate.

We watch the pomegranates ripen and discuss the midrash about the 613 seeds reminding us of the 613 commandments. Before the conclusion of Yom Kippur, our waterfall becomes a special place where our students observe tashlich, by "washing away" their misdeeds of the previous year.

And what better place to celebrate Sukkot than in a gan! We build a child size sukkah in the garden, then decorate it with fresh picked herbs and branches. Classes can pick a vegetable and have a healthy snack in the sukkah. They understand that Sukkot is a holiday that celebrates the harvest. We look up through the roof and talk about seeing the sky through the branches. They learn that having an open roof is one requirement for a sukkah.

Even Simchat Torah connects us to the gan. We pick a pomegranate from the tree and learn that rimon means pomegranate and also refers to the crown on the torah.

Connecting young children to G-D through nature provides concrete experiences and understanding. It also provides a lasting spiritual foundation.