Children in West AM Caring for the Environment

By Peckie Peters, Head Teacher

Children in our classroom have always had ideas about the environment, recycling and caring for the earth. Nico expressed his love for whales back in September and was eager to share his knowledge of them. He was outraged when he found in a book that tons of garbage are dumped in the ocean each year, hurting many living things. Sawyer organizes chairs in rows, each of them representing a rubbish bin. Then he comes by to pick up the garbage, carefully tipping each chair and setting it back down on its four legs before he moves onto the next one. He knows that garbage trucks are green and recycling trucks are blue and that they pick up different items. Azeneth has gardened with her dad since she was three. She tells stories about planting, tending, watering and then eating the fruits and vegetables that grew. In West AM, this shared interest in the environment evolved into a classroom culture where children show their commitment to caring for it.

In mid-fall we started a compost bin in our yard next to the gardening boxes. Teachers thought composting would appeal to children because of their love of gardening and being out-of-doors, and it would give them hands-on experience taking care of the environment. Addition-ally, we hoped to expose children to the scientific process of composting, which would provide an opportunity to observe, question, predict and construct knowledge. This kind of experience promotes critical and creative thinking, the ability to take a concept apart and to look at it differently, which helps children to develop a higher level of thinking. At that time, many teachers saw this endeavor as something we might do for several months until children’s interest dissipated. That didn’t happen.

We began by adding two wicker baskets to our classroom to be used exclusively for transporting compostable items out to the compost bins. After snack time, a teacher used the baskets to collect fruits and vegetables from each table and invited children to come outside to help prepare them for the compost bin. The baskets were heavy, full of the snack time content. Within days, children were assuming this job by using carts or a friend to lighten the load if they needed it. Children cut fruit into smaller pieces so it would compost more easily. Dumping the cut-pieces into the black compost containers enabled children to see how much food would have gone into the garbage had we not intercepted it. The containers filled quickly and we had to figure out a system for turning the contents as needed for the chemical process to occur. The pungent mess was heavy and not so attractive to children (or many adults) at first. However, as the magic of compost began to occur, our attitudes shifted. One teacher built a large screen so children could help separate the rich, dark soil from the decaying items. The chickens loved hunting for worms in the compost and so did the children. Turning and sifting the dirt (which needs to be done several times a week) was less desirable, but still had a small and faithful following. Oliver was one of those children and frequently announced that he plans to be a gardener when he grows up. Collecting food items became an automatic task and while many children took a turn, Eddie, Jack, Alex and Sawyer assumed the job with regularity. Snack groups instituted systems for sorting items: one plate for garbage, one for compost and one for recycling.

In December, several children became interested in the book Earth by Susanna van Rose, a non-fiction book with detailed information and a combination of illustrations and photographs. This got teachers wondering what information children already had about the planet they were working to protect and nurture through composting. Building models of the planet seemed like a concrete way to explore the abstract concept of the “Earth,” in that it let children investigate in a hands-on context. Teachers inquired as to what information children already had about the earth and particularly if children had a sense that the earth consisted of land masses and water. We thought it made sense to begin there and decided to use papier-mâché to construct our own globes. Children loved the construction process, then waited days for the soggy masses to dry enough so we could paint them.

How could teachers further support learning about the environment and caring for it? Children had information, theories and interest. Composting was now an integral part of our classroom, and children were invested in the process. We decided to build on this interest by helping children understand that there are many ways they can care for the environment. We Just Call It Garbage, a song that was introduced at story time, was an impetus for helping children think about their role. The theme of the song is that many things that we think of as garbage can actually be used for something else if we just look at them differently. The lyrics explain: “We just call it garbage when we don’t know what to do with it.” Children embraced this concept wholeheartedly and began to challenge each other to find other uses for things. “I can make a boat out of that milk carton,” announced Brock at snack time. “Can I keep that?” Cullen looked at him with admiration and asked, “Can I do that too? Will you show me?” Egg cartons became painted works of art. Paper tubes were transformed into musical instruments. The excitement children felt was visible and audible as you moved throughout the classroom. “Don’t throw that out. We can use it for something else!” “I could use that for my art project.” “I brought these from my house in case someone needs to use them again.” A broken toaster became “Hads,” a classroom robot inspired and constructed by Will and a team of peers. It was crafted entirely of recycled materials and highlighted children’s ingenuity.

Interest broadened when we shared books like Michael Recycle, a story about a young superhero who teaches his community the value of recycling, and sang songs like Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, a sing-song chant expressing how easy and important it is to use less, use again and use differently. Children continued to play, explore and experiment with concepts of composting, recycling and garbage. They observed, investigated and asked questions about the composting process. (How does our food turn into good dirt for our garden? Why does it get hot? What are the worms doing?) They formulated their own ideas about what it means to recycle. (After passing out plates to all the children at his snack table, Banks passed the extra ones back to the teacher and said: “We don’t need to recycle these. We didn’t use them really. Put them somewhere so we can use them next time.”) They found new ways to have less waste. (One day, after drawing a picture, Elizabeth turned the paper over to draw on the other side, announcing that she was trying to use less paper so we could save trees).

Through the process of learning about caring for our environment, children became active participants in their school community. Engaging in the planning and following through with these plans along with their own reflections inspired them to think deeply about the concept of caring for the world. Perhaps this knowledge will help them to realize that they can make decisions, regulate their own behavior and take responsibility for their actions as well. It appears that they do grasp the concept that their behavior has bigger implications. For example, Elizabeth expressed: “I hope nobody cuts down all the trees and makes them into paper. There would be no more trees for the birds to live in.” Cullen added: “Oh no. The trash is winning. We hope our recycling gets used again.” The children, as always, inspire us to respond with action. If the children in West AM have anything to do with it, which they will, the world is in good hands.