Saturday, November 26, 2011

Recycle those leftovers – Composting

My daughter displaying our finished
compost bin.
For a long time, my husband has been lamenting our inability to have a compost heap due to our frequent military moves.  Having been raised by gardeners it is hard for him to throw our leftovers in the garbage (of which we have tons due to picky kids).  When I found this great idea for a stink free and small scale compost bin, I knew we had to give it a try.  Our bin became a fun family project, and it is all set up in our back yard waiting for tonight’s leftovers.  I can’t wait to show the kids how the things that we throw away become nutritious soil for us to use in our garden next year. 

Parent Background
Why Compost?   Did you know that 27% of the solid waste that goes in landfills is compostable items that could be used to make wonderful rich soils that have wonderful benefits for your landscaping and garden.  At the same time that we are throwing away all of these items that we could easily recycle on our own, we are spending money to purchase chemical fertilizers that we just don’t know are truly safe.  Now this backyard composting activity is most certainly not going to remove all 27% of those food scraps and yard waste from the waste stream, but it can give our children a small start to learn how composting works, and to produce some great organic (and free) fertilizer to use around our own homes.  Composting is easy, unpleasant odor-free when done correctly, and it’s even fun to see what can happen to the scraps we do not eat.  This activity can produce a tiny amount of compost for a potted plant in an apartment, or a larger amount for a whole garden depending how big of a container you use.
The Activity – Make your own mini-composting bin. 
Any plastic bin with a tight fitting lid with a greater than 16 in length.  (We chose a larger-size tote box to allow us to make more soil and because we already had a cracked one ready to be upcycled)

Drill or knife
Brown or Dry materials such as fall leaves, dried grass clippings, shredded newspaper, cut up cardboard, used paper towels, dried flowers.

Wet stuff – weeds that do not have seeds yet(adding weeds that have seeded will just spread weeds to whatever you use the compost on), fresh grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps from food preparation or left overs, coffee grounds, tea bags (remove staple), egg shells, plants.

Items to avoid:  Meat, bones, fats, oils, breads, pasta, nuts, glossy paper, and animal or human wastes.  Though some of these items can be composted, it is best to avoid them in small scale composting.
1.        Prepare your composting bin by drilling holes for ventilation and drainage. 
a.       Drill at least 4  ¼”-1/2” holes in the bottom of the plastic bin.  We made holes in each corner and then a couple of smaller ones in the middle for drainage.
b.      Poke holes along the top of the bin at least every 3 inches.  Our holes were about ¼” .  Make a series of 10-12 holes through the lid of the plastic bin also to provide further aeration.  It is recommended to make the holes ¼”-1/2” also.
c.       If you find later that your compost is developing a smell you can add more holes, as a bad odor is usually the result of not enough air getting into the compost.
2.       Place a bottom layer of dry materials filling up about ¼ -1/2 of the bin.
The kids tearing up old newspaper for
the bottom layer of the compost bin.
3.       Layer dry and “wet” items trying to keep the mix from at least 50% dry materials.

4.       Stir or thoroughly shake the compost bin every couple of days for the first month and then every week to two weeks as the compost develops.
5.        After the first two weeks the compost should be warmer than the outside temperature as a result of the process of bacteria breaking down the plant materials in the compost.  If the compost is no longer warm to the touch on the inside, you should add more wet materials and stir it in. 

The kids shaking up the
box of dried materials.
6.       This compost bin can be kept inside depending on the size, but should be exposed to some sunlight and moisture to help the decomposition process.

7.       Within 4- 6 months depending on the temperature where you live, you will have rich soil to put on your spring plantings as well as a number of opportunities for your child to explore and observe nature’s ability to recycle.
Tying it all Together
Dry materials in the compost bin - grasses,
leaves, old newspaper.
Make sure to let your child help you to set up the compost bin.  Stirring the compost together is a wonderful job to allow a toddler or a preschooler to assist with and it will give them a change to see the soil as it changes throughout the winter and to know that they helped to make this wonderful food for their plants next year.  Involving kids in gardening is a wonderful way to help picky eaters learn to eat their vegetables, and making their own soil helps them to start at the “ground” floor and see the whole cycle of how our earth provides the things we eat.   

I look forward to reporting on the progress of our compost bin throughout the year, I hope that you will start your own with your family and swap stories with me.

1/5/2012  Update.  After about 3 weeks our compost bin was getting pretty full from all the veggies and fruits in our diet.  The kids LOVED taking the compost out every day (we kept a coffee can in the kitchen) and stirring up the compost.  After we finished adding to it, I kind of fell down on the job of stirring it up regularly.  Today, I went out to check and found some good and bad results.  First there is no smell whatsoever, so we are going well at keeping good bacteria going.  We did have quite the flock of fruit flies but luckily no large bug colony.  After reading, it seems like it is a bit wet in there and that I may have added to many greens and need more of the dry stuff.  Obviously some of the compost has already broken down because there was more space than before.  I added some additional dry leaves from our forested backyard and will be putting some newspaper shreds in as well.  Lastly there was quite a bit of fuzzy mold, it didn't look like it would eat me, but it was there.  I wasn't sure, but I am told that mold isn't neccessarily a bad thing, just part of the breaking down process.  I'll update again soon.

Toddler Tuesday: Wax Paper Leaves

Today I am going to recommend that you do a classic leaf activity that your toddler can use to help decorate for Thanksgiving.  Wax paper leaves!  Do you remember ironing wax paper to preserve leaves as a kid because I sure do?  I will have to give a link for directions because I have to admit that I had a bit to a FAIL on this one, though we did have fun.  For some reason, our wax paper placemats would not completely seal for me (I ended up finishing with a glue stick) so I will not subject you to my directions. 

Start out by going on a fun leaf walk with your toddler and make sure to pick a variety of different colored and shaped leaves.  Then you get to decide what you will do with the leaves:  will you cut them out and hang them on the curtains or windows, make placemats like we did, or maybe make a little book of different leaves stapled together.  Either way I had my toddler and preschoolers arrange the leaves and then I whisked them away into my gated kitchen to keep everyone away from the hot iron.  My kids loved eating off of their special placemats at dinner all week.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Leaf the decorating to the Leaves: Fall Colors

In the fall, the trees turn in their lush green leaves for a more colorful display.  It is always fun to see the variety from red to yellow, and even some unusual colors like purple.    In today’s activity we are going to gather leaves during a nature walk and then do a little chemistry to see what pigment colors really make up that leaf.  Is green the only pigment color in a green leaf or are there more colors that we can’t even see?  This activity takes a lot of parent involvement and was frankly more fun for me than it was for my preschoolers, but they still had a good time. 

Parent Background
Plants have a green pigment called Chlorophyll that captures the light energy from the sun and uses that energy to form sugars.  These sugars are the basis of all of our food supply, because they are the energy source for the plant and all the animals that feed on the plant.  The Chlorophyll is so abundant in leaves that most leaves look completely green all summer.  In the fall when the temperatures start to cool, the days grow shorter and the light from the sun is less direct trees and other plants begin to shut down their sugar making factory and the leaves no longer make chlorophyll.  As the leaf starts to die and the chlorophyll fades we get to see some of the other pigments naturally in the leaves.  These pigments were always there in small amounts and helped the tree to absorb other wavelengths of light not used by the chlorophyll.  However, because they are only present on a small scale they are only visible once the plentiful green pigment is no longer present.  Today’s experiment uses rubbing alcohol as a carrier to separate the leaf pigments on a piece of filter paper so that colors other than those visible in the leaf can be seen.  This works because the rubbing alcohol dissolves the pigments and carries it with them up the paper, the alcohol evaporates leaving the pigment behind.  Each pigment forms its own line because different colors have different weights and are carried different distances before the alcohol dissolves. 

Our Leaves:  Red, Purple, Yellow, Green
Mason Jars or other Glass Jars or Bowls with a lid (one for each color of leaves)
Clothes pins, tape, or paper clips to clip coffee filters to jar
Colored Leaves from a Leaf Walk (Try to get ones right from the tree or that are still moist and don’t forget green leaves as well as the fall color leaves)
Rubbing Alcohol to fill each jar about 1.5-2 inches

Ground Up Leaves
Coffee Filters – cut into 2 inch stips (one strip per jar)

Small food processor, blender, grinder, or hand chopper

Cake pan to use as a hot water bath.

Procedure:  Do this experiment in a well-ventilated area.

1.        Take your children out to pick fall leaves.  Try to get at least 3 colors making sure to include green.  You will need a handful of each color. 

2.       Have your children separate leaves into jars with like colors so each jar only holds one color.

3.       Determine how much rubbing alcohol is required to fill your jar to the 1.5-2” mark.

4.       Making sure to protect your eyes while grinding the leaves in alcohol.  Place leaves and rubbing alcohol in your food processor, other appliance or grind them by hand making sure to produce small pieces so that the rubbing alcohol can dissolve the pigment from the cells. 

5.       Pour each alcohol/leaf mixture into a jar and rinse the bowl before doing the other color.

6.       You will notice the alcohol starting to take on each leaf color and should ask your children what color the leaves and alcohol is in each bowl.

7.       Once each bowl or jar is filled with a leaf mixture, loosely cap, and place it in a hot water bath (just around the bottom) for 30 minutes to allow the alcohol to pull as much pigment as possible out of the leaves, turning black is a great sign but mine didn’t quite get there and still worked great.  I poured boiling water into a glass cake pan around the jars.

8.       Cut Coffee filters into 2 “ strips and write the name of each leaf color on the strip. 

9.       Uncap the jars and lip or tape the strip to the rim of the jar with the bottom of the strip in the leaf/alcohol mixture.

10.   Wait one hour or more to allow the alcohol to be absorbed and evaporated from the coffee filter strips.  Ask your kids to see what colors they can find.  Our results are below:

Red Leaves:  Red and yellow sections of color.  Green Leaves:  Yellow Lines, Green Lines
 Yellow Leaves:  Yellow Line, Green Line.  Purple Leaves:  Purple color throughout, green line, yellow line.

Check back for a classic toddler leaf activity on Tuesday.  Until then – Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Times: They are a’ Changin (The Seasons)

Observing weather in the fall season.

I will easily admit that today’s preschool scientist activity isn’t quite as fun as eating a chocolate “rock”.  It is, however, something that is very much on the mind of my preschoolers.  Especially since the time change last week they have been quite curious about why it is now dark by dinner time, when in the summer they went to bed while it was still light outside.  I came up with the following printable to be very child friendly and allow preschoolers to record their observations about how the temperatures and weather are changing.  I also had my kids tell me when they first thought it was dark outside and I wrote that down for them.  For those of you who have kids who never stop asking why, I am also including a link to an easy demonstration for the “Why” of the seasonal change.  This activity would be most effective if you keep your child’s season observation record to compare throughout the year.  (You can easily scan it and keep a digital copy if you don’t want to keep the papers for the entire year). 

Parent Background Guide

The seasons are a very complicated topic, confusing for both children and adults.  Many people incorrectly believe that because the Earth rotates around the sun in an eclipse (or oval) shaped orbit, that our summer is when we are closer to the sun and winter is when we are further away.  The truth is actually the opposite for the Northern Hemisphere which is closest to the sun in the beginning of January.  Earth’s tilt on is axis is the true reason that we have seasons.  Because we are tilted towards or away from the sun we have days that vary in length throughout the year.  The simplest way of understanding the seasons is that when we are tilted towards the sun in the summer the Northern Hemisphere receives more hours of light and is therefore warmer than in the winter when it has a shorter daylight period.  It is actually much more complicated and you can read more about it here.

This week’s activity

Weather Observation Printable

Download full size at
1.       Pick a time each day for your child to observe the weather (we chose lunchtime).
2.      Have your child choose which weather symbol (or symbols) to circle and which clothing most represents what they would want to wear outside. 
3.      When your child first notices that it is dark write down the time.  This will probably be a bit inaccurate, but will show the major trend throughout the seasons.
4.      Help your child record their observations for 1-2 weeks.
5.      Scan or keep the record for comparing in the Winter, Spring, and Summer.

Seasons Demonstration
Round Object or Globe
Light Source

This activity may or may not make sense to your preschool kids.  I have not yet used it with mine although I can see myself doing it in the near future.    A full understanding will likely not be reached until middle school where abstract learning becomes more achievable.  However, introducing the idea of earth’s tilt is something that can help our little enquiring minds get some ideas about how the seasons work.

Forgetful Friday - Toddler Rock Collecting

Last week I promised a Toddler Tuesday.  I hate to disappoint, but Tuesday came and went and I wasn’t feeling myself.  My husband told me no-problem, I could publish my first woops Wednesday article.  Unfortunately, that still did not happen so here we are on Forgetful Friday.  Today’s activity is beyond simple to do, and I am sure that your toddlers will love it as much as mine.  The goals of this activity are to encourage your child to look for like items outside, and to show them that their finds are worthwhile to us by allowing them to bring them home and play with them.
This week’s activity – Toddler Rock Collecting

Clean plastic jar or wide mouth bottle with Lid (Peanut Butter, Mayo, Water Bottles)

Hot glue gun (if choking is a hazard in your house).


1.        Go on a nature walk with your toddler, taking your jar with you. 

2.       Point out large, small, shiny, and dull rocks and allow your toddler to pick up and put whichever ones catch their fancy in your container. 

3.       The assortment may be pretty unimpressive, but make sure to reinforce words like big, small,  rock, pebble,  shiny, hard, and color words as you go.

4.       Once your toddler is satisfied with their collection or the jar is full, put the lid on to keep the rocks inside.

5.       Let your toddler shake, roll, and look at their collection to get a feel for what rocks are all about.  If you can, take time to talk about what types of things you see in the rocks. 

6.       If your toddler, like mine, is likely to a)dump the rocks all over the floor, or b)try to eat them, hot glue the lid in place to keep the collection sealed.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Have lunch like a ROCK star!

I don’t know about you, but my children pick up, collect, and try to hoard rocks everywhere we go.  They love rocks of all different shapes and sizes.  While they are probably too young to make any serious attempt at classifying rocks, they often want me to tell them why rocks are different from one another.  I designed this lesson to show my children that there are three different ways that rocks are “born” so that they can begin to have an understanding of why they look different too.

Parent Background -  There are three main types of rocks:
Igneous  Igneous rocks are formed when magma(inside the earth’s crust) or lava (on the surface) cool and become rock.  It may form crystals or not and is usually roughtly the same composition through-out the rock.  Common Igneous rocks are basalt, pumice, and granite.

Sedimentary-  Sedimentary rocks are formed by the gradual cementing together or either small rocks, soil, or organic matter over time.  Examples, are sandstone, limestone, coal, conglomerates, and  mudrocks.  Fossils and clues to the history of earth are typically found in sedimentary rocks since they have not been destroyed by the heat applied to the rock.

Metamorphic -   Any type of rock (igneous, sedimentary, or older metamorphic) that is subjected to high temperatures or pressures after forming .  Familiar metamorphic rocks are slate, marble, and quartzite.  Metamorphic rock can be quite smooth or very bumpy with lots of inclusions.

Sedimentary Sandwiches

Materials Needed: 
                2 pieces of bread (two different kinds/colors if you have them)
                Your child’s favorite sandwich fillings using as many different items as possible
                Examples: Peanut Butter and Jelly with raisins on wheat and white bread
                                  Ham with two kinds of cheese, lettuce, and tomato
                                  Or get really creative if you have adventurous kids.

The set-up:  First look at a sample or the following picture of a sedimentary rock with your child.  Ask them what the rock looks like and if they don’t volunteer layers or stripes, add that into your description of the rock.  A sedimentary rock is composed of many layers pushed together and cemented over time.  Today they are going to make a layered sandwich for lunch.
1.  Present all the sandwich ingredients to the child and let them know that they are going to make their own lunch. 
2.  The ingredients can go in any order just as long as one piece is of bread is on the bottom and one is on the top. 
3.  Let your child construct their own sandwich, then add the condiment cement yourself. 
4.  If the sandwich has gotten tall you get the extra fun of letting your child “apply pressure” by squishing it down.
5.  Make sure to look at the layers before getting down to the business of eating. 

Making the Connection:  Ask questions like the following –Did your sandwich look at all like the rock we looked at?   Did you put all your layers on at once or did they go on one at a time (it’s the same with sedimentary rocks – each layer was put on one after the other)?  When you bite through the sandwich does it all look the same or are there layers on the inside too?  What about if you bend this part of the sandwich in half – are there still layers?

Igneous and Metamorphic Rock Candy Dessert
Both Igneous and Metamorphic Rock are formed in the presence of heat.  In Igneous rock the rocks and minerals are fully melted into either magma or lava – this gives them a rather uniform texture and composition.  Metamorphic Rocks form when sedimentary rocks are subjected to heat and pressure over time and can be composed of many types of rocks at once so they often have a variety of shapes and textures within the same rock.  In the following activity, you and your children will use chocolate to make rock models that they will certainly want to examine more closely.

Igneous Rock Chocolate
Chocolate Chips
Light Colored Chips (white chocolate, peanut butter, or butterscotch)
Microwave Safe Bowl
Wax Paper
Some type of mold to cool the chocolate in (can be a bowl, a Tupperware, a mini-loaf pan)
Access to a Microwave

1.       Grease or line your Rock mold with wax paper.
2.       Explain to your children that the two types of chips are different types of minerals and the microwave is a volcano that is going to melt them into lava.  We are now going to make a desert that is like an igneous or lava rock.
3.       Let your children pour each kind of chip into a microwave safe bowl. 
4.       We put it in the microwave and heated until melted about 2 minutes though I got it out every 30 seconds for the kids to stir.
5.       When fully melted, I stirred it all together once so that it all looked uniform and we poured it into the wax paper lined mold.
6.       Put it into the refrigerator to cool.

Metamorphic Rock Chocolate
Chocolate Chips
Light Colored Chips (white chocolate, peanut butter, or butterscotch)
Chocolate Halloween Candy (we used a 2 mini take-five bars and a bag of milk duds, m&ms could have been my first choice, but they mysteriously disappeared from the Halloween candy overnight)
Microwave Safe Bowl
Empty glass Jar or Heavy Bowl to sit inside microwave safe bowl (used as a weight)
Cooking Spray
Access to a Microwave

1.       Spray the microwave safe bowl and the bottom of your weight with cooking spray.
2.       If your children are familiar with the butterfly life cycle explain that when the butterfly turns from a caterpillar into a butterfly we call that metamorphosis.  We are going to make metamorphic rock candy from other rocks.  Heat and pressure from other rocks on top of them make rocks change into metamorphic rocks.
3.       Let your children layer each kind of candy and the chips into a microwave safe bowl. 
4.       Next I filled the weight with water and placed it on top of the candy inside the bowl.
5.       We put it in the microwave and heated until melted about 3 minutes though I got it out every 30 seconds to check and push down on the weight..
6.       When the chocolate chips were fully melted and everything else looked gooey I gave it one final squish and we put it into the refrigerator to cool.

Making the connection:
When the chocolates were nice and cool (about an hour) it’s time to unmold and eat them.   Before eating, I had my kids look at them and I posed a few questions.  What does the igneous rock look like?  Can you tell we made it out of two different things?  Does it look the same all over?  How about the metamorphic, what does it look like?  Do they look the same or does the metamorphic have lots of bumps and things inside?  Don’t forget the most important question:  Which one is yummier?             

I hope you enjoyed our yummy foray into rocks and the next time your child asks what kind of rock it is, you can help them to determine if they think it is the same all through (probably igneous), layered (probably sedimentary), or made of all kinds of things heated together (probably metamorphic).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Look ahead at November and Materials List

In November, we are going to be studying in the field of Earth Science.  I am going to be blogging about the following topics. 

11/5  Have lunch like a ROCK star – We will learn about and make edible models of the three different types of Rocks.
                Your Childs Favorite Sandwich Fixings (the more ingredients the more fun)
                A microwave or double boiler and various microwave safe bowls.
                Leftover Chocolate Halloween Candy
                Chocolate Chips
                Chips of a different color:  White Chocolate, Peanut butter or Butterscotch
                Wax Paper
Toddler Tuesday – Rock Collecting
               Sealable Plastic Container (Peanut Butter or Mayonnaise Jar, Dip or Salsa tub, Wider  
                Mouthed Soda or Water bottle.
                Glue Gun, Super Glue, Gorilla Glue or A lot of Tape

11/12  Times they are a Changing – Help your child to chart what time it gets dark and to understand why it gets dark earlier in the winter.

                Globe (or ball that can be drawn on and permanent marker)
                Printable Time Log

No Toddler Tuesday This Week – Get Ready for Christmas Book Reviews!

11/19 Leaf the Decorating to Me – Study the Colors of fall leaves through leaf chromatography which extracts the pigment from the leaf and allows you to see it on a piece of filter paper.

                Bottle of Rubbing Alcohol           
                Leaves of Different Colors
                Coffee Filters
                Glass Jars (2-3)

Toddler Tuesday
                Wax Paper
                Fall Leaves

11/26  Recycle those Thanksgiving leftovers into food for next year – Build a mini-compost bin suitable for small spaces and frequent movers (like us!)
                Plastic Bin with Secure Lid – at least 24” long
                Drill or Sharp Knife.

No Toddler Tuesday this week.