This week’s Teacher Feature highlights an infant lesson on decomposers. Educators Lida Barthol, Jill Manasco, and Julia Plant brought their class on two different visits which can be seen below. They first went to the O. Orkin Insect Zoo at the National Museum of Natural History to look at the centipede and learn about the insect’s role in decomposing. On the next day, they walked to “Mushroom” by Foon Sham which is part of the Life Underground exhibit.
What inspired you to teach this lesson?
One of our teachers, Jill, was devoting her time to improving the school garden. We knew that the children were interested in dirt and wanted to expand upon their interest and knowledge while utilizing the revitalized garden space! Also, the children loved to eat and explore food, so we thought a fun entryway into dirt and gardening would be to talk about how decomposers help enrich the soil so that our food is able to grow.
What were your objectives?
We wanted the children to gain an understanding that all living things need to eat, and that eating is good for us. We hoped that by studying compost and learning about decomposers, the children would begin to see that although not everybody eats the same things, everybody needs to eat to live and grow.
What was it like viewing the centipede in the O. Orkin Insect Zoo?
When visiting the Insect Zoo, we brought with us laminated images of centipedes for the children to look at and hold. We find it beneficial to give the children something to engage with when they are sitting in the buggies and waiting their turn to get a closer look. We took each child out one by one and brought them closer to the live centipede so that they could see it and observe its movements. As we walked through the Insect Zoo, our class noticed other insects that might play a role in the decomposition process and we paused to look at the ones that caught the children’s eye. We also brought images of our compost bin at different stages of decomposition and discussed how these insects may have helped our compost to decompose.
The infants returned to their classroom where they used their bodies to explore how different insects move. They wiggled like worms and crawled like centipedes.
How did you extend the learning when you returned to your classroom?
When we returned to the classroom, we looked at our own compost and talked about how one day the decomposing fruits and vegetables would become dirt, where centipedes could live. We wiggled through the tunnels, pretending to be worms that might live in the dirt, and crawled through them like centipedes. While moving our bodies like insects, we sang our favorite composting song “Dirt”. See lyrics below:
Dirt, dirt, dirt
It’s where you grow your plants
Dirt, dirt, dirt,
You’ve got some on your pants!
During our composting unit, we compared the movements of worms to those of centipedes and sang “I’m a Little Wiggle Worm” while wiggling through the tunnels. See lyrics below:
I’m a little wiggle worm,
Watch me go.
I can wiggle fast
Or very, very slow.
I wiggle all around
And then I go
Back, to the ground to the home I know.
Why is exploring an important part of infant learning?
We tried to set up our lesson so that everyone had a chance to participate if interested. For activities that required lots of teacher supervision, such as looking at compost, we practiced taking turns and using gentle hands. Through these activities, we are encouraging the children to explore using their natural curiosity, and to grow their independence as learners.
Why is it important to engage infants’ sense when teaching?
Young children are very tactile learners, and this class in particular enjoyed learning through touch. We knew that when visiting exhibits in museums that the children weren’t able to touch, we needed to bring something for them to hold to help engage them in the lesson and make the topic more concrete. Bringing a real mushroom for the children to hold, touch (and sometimes taste!) helped the them to compare the sculpture to real mushrooms.
What recommendations do you have for another teacher trying out this lesson?
Be prepared for the compost to become very fragrant! The children loved looking at the compost, but as it begins to decompose, it gets rather stinky. It might be beneficial to have an outdoor space to move the compost to so that the children can still look at it but won’t have to smell it all day in their classroom.