Caring through Composting
Repairing the world and enriching our lives
The outdoors provide many learning opportunities for young children to learn about their communities and the world around them.
Every year, the month of November in our early childhood center usually includes a discussion about gratitude, and the idea of “being thankful.” While Thanksgiving is not a Jewish holiday per se, the overall concept and meaning serves as a jumping-off point for staff in our Jewish preschool to talk about important Jewish values such as tikkun olam (repairing the world) and being shomrei adamah (protectors of the earth).
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the L’Dor V’Dor Early Childhood Center (ECC) at the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, N.Y., emphasized outdoor classroom education for our preschoolers. Getting outdoors is a wonderful way to teach young children about the beauty of the natural world and the importance of caring for our environment. Our school’s curriculum organically weaves Jewish values and traditions into the time spent outdoors.
During November of this year, we began a new initiative to bring composting to the school. The concept of being thankful for the abundance that we have, naturally lends itself to doing something to “give back” to our environment. Because young children most often learn by doing, the ECC administration felt strongly that a composting program would be an asset.
Our preschool is fortunate enough to be located in North Hempstead, a town that values sustainability programs and caring for our environment, providing compost bins at a discounted rate to residents. Composting involves the breakdown of outdoor and kitchen waste into nutrient-rich soil. By composting, we are actively reducing waste that ends up in landfills and in turn, providing valuable plant nutrients and reducing the need for fertilizers and pesticides.
Not only are the ECC children learning about composting, their teachers are learning along with them. By reading books such as Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for the Earth, by Mary McKenna Siddals and What’s Sprouting in My Trash: A Book about Composting, by Esther Porter, the staff and students spent the week before Thanksgiving saving food scraps from snack and lunch, in preparation for their first composting experience.
The concept of gratitude can be a challenge to teach to young children. Using the leftover food scraps as an example, the ECC teachers were able to show the children tangible evidence of having something to “give back” to the earth through composting. The students could see that they were fortunate to have fresh fruit and vegetables to eat, and that they too could help to “repair the world” by saving their scraps.
Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Each of the nine classrooms in the school began to talk about and to collect food scraps to be put into the composter. Orange peels, egg shells, apple cores and other food waste were all saved for composting. Each class examined their food scraps after snack and lunch to determine whether or not it would be good for composting.
The composter conveniently sits outside the front entrance to the school, and is low enough to the ground for the children to see and access it easily. Before placing the scraps into the composter for the first time, the ECC students were joined by Rabbi Jade Sank-Ross to say the shehecheyanu blessing, giving thanks for the abundance of food scraps the children worked so hard to collect, and to commemorate doing something new for the first time.
The children were excited for their turn to add the scraps to the bin, which already had some soil and grass clippings from a recent visit by the gardener. Once each child had their chance, the composter was sealed and the hard work began – time to turn the compost! The size and weight of the bin requires that the children work together to push the barrel around, which helps to ensure that the scraps are thoroughly mixed into the existing compost.
Because the preschool already has a vegetable garden on the property, in the spring, the children will have the opportunity to add the nutrient-rich composted soil back to the garden to help the tomatoes and cucumbers grow. Composting requires very little financial outlay, and an abundance of learning opportunities, not only to teach young children about important Jewish values, but also to teach about caring for our environment. All winter long, the children will continue their work as “keepers of the earth,” by adding to and turning the composter.
At the L’Dor V’Dor Early Childhood Center, the month of November is simply a reminder of the teachings that occur all year round – we are grateful for the abundance we have all around us. Now, more than ever, we are grateful to be together for in-person learning. We are blessed to have a school filled with opportunities for learning and growth, and we have the “great outdoors” to teach us more about our core Jewish values. Our school strives to embrace an “attitude of gratitude” every day, not only during the month of Thanksgiving.
Jen Schiffer is the director of The Community Synagogue L’Dor V’Dor Early Childhood Center in Port Washington, N.Y., and has worked in the field of Jewish early childhood education for almost 15 years, teaching in Queens and Long Island, and serving on the board of the Jewish Early Childhood Association.