Skip to content

2

In our increasingly sterile and antibiotic-filled world, it is easy to forget the importance of microorganisms and the process of decomposition to soil quality. The picture book Rotten Pumpkin: A Rotten Tale in 15 Voices by David M. Schwartz and with photographs by Dwight Kuhn takes you down and dirty with close-ups of molds, slime molds and yeasts, as well as other organisms, to show how nutrients get recycled and organic matter added to the soil.

Rotten-pumpkin

I'll let you know right up front that this book is not for the highly squeamish. If the thought of fly vomit makes you quiver, then you might not find the book as delightful as I did. Photographer Kuhn spares nothing as he follows the decomposition meltdown of a carved Halloween pumpkin. Remember that kids, however, might enjoy all that goo and ooze. Plus, the team of David M. Schwartz and Dwight Kuhn have worked on a number of projects together and their expertise shows.

I found this short time-lapse video that will give you an inkling of what to expect:

David Schwartz tells the story of 15 decomposing organisms from the first person point of view, bringing the reader right in. I don't think it will be too much of a "spoiler" to let you know the cycle ends on an upbeat note with a pumpkin seed sprouting in the resulting compost.

Rotten Pumpkin will be highlighted at Halloween because of the pumpkin, but it deserves a place on the shelf all year around because of the universal processes it explores.

Related activities:

Experiencing compost and the process of decomposition first hand can be a life-changing lesson for children. Don't be afraid to get dirty!

1. The suggestions for classroom investigations using pumpkins in the back of the book are excellent ones, for example looking at how temperature changes the decomposition process.

Compost.bin

(Photograph of compost bin in public domain at Wikipedia)

2. Composting

My sister and I consider ourselves lucky because our mother was composting back in the 1960s when we were growing up. Our mother was way ahead of her time, but we got to learn how it worked at an early age.

As we moved around the country we realized composting is one of those processes that varies a bit from place to place and situation to situation. Therefore, I recommend that before you launch a big project that you find a local class or the advice of a local gardening expert if you can. The Internet is also filled with basic information, such as website and videos. Here are just a few examples:

Michigan Kids has kid-friendly instructions about composting to get you started.

The Texas Agricultural Extension Service has a Composting for Kids slide show.

Hamilton County Recycles has a fun, upbeat video on how to get started with backyard composting:

Once you have compost going, Cornell University has a bunch of information and excellent experiment ideas at The Science and Engineering of Composting.

3. Composting with earthworms

If you don't have room for a full-fledged compost bin, you might want to investigate a worm bin. Our family's worm composting adventure was definitely a memorable and worthwhile experience. We also shared our worm bin with students in my son's classes. See the Weekend Science Fun: Earthworms for more details (worm composting is towards the bottom of the post) and an instruction video.

Have doubts? Think composting might be smelly or icky? Yes, it might be those things on occasion, but experimenting with compost also will yield a much deeper understanding of our world.

Age Range: 4 - 12 years
Grade Level: Preschool - 7
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Creston Books (July 23, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1939547032
ISBN-13: 978-1939547033

Thank you for visiting us during Children's Garden Week. If you have children's gardening resources you would like to include, please feel free to leave a comment.

children's-garden-week

 

Disclosures: This book was provided for review by Creston Books. Also, I am an affiliate for Amazon, and if you click through the linked titles or ads and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Proceeds will be used to maintain this self-hosted blog.

For recent weekend science fun posts we have had a couple of walks: a spring flower walk and a flowering tree walk. Now it is time for a change of pace and do a critter crawl.

Have you ever dug through a pile of leaf litter or looked under a log? How about sifted through a compost heap? Take some time to find a quiet, preferably moist, spot where pieces of dead plants are piled and spend a while getting to know the small, but important animals that live there. Prepare to be amazed at how many different tiny creatures dwell in this often-ignored part of our world.

Before you get started, you might want to gather up a few items:

  • A magnifying lens can help you see more details
  • Tweezers, forceps or a small stick to gently move leaves or bark
  • Small paintbrush to remove dirt and move tiny creatures
  • Paper and pencil to make drawings and record results
  • Gloves (optional but helpful)
  • Identification guides, or take a look at descriptions of compost critters like this one at the Junior Master Gardener website

Locate a compost heap, pile of leaves or logs where you have permission to explore. First survey the area. Make sure you and your family are familiar with common poisonous creatures such as snakes or scorpions that might also be found hiding under leaves, rocks or logs in your community. Bees and wasps sometimes nest in the ground too, so exercise caution.

Gently begin to turn over leaves or peel off loose bark. Pay close attention. What kinds of things might you see?

Expect:

  • Insects such as beetles, crickets, cockroaches, ants or earwigs
  • Snails, slugs
  • Spiders, mites
  • Millipedes, centipedes
  • Worms

If you are lucky you might find a few creatures that are children's favorites, the rolypolies or sowbugs (also called potato bugs, wood lice and various other names). Depending on the type, rolypolies and sowbugs are 1/4- to 1/2-inch-long, gray and relatively hard shelled.

If you find some, gently pick one up. How does it react to being picked up? Does it roll into a tight ball? If so, then it is a rolypoly.
rolypoly

Does it simply try to scamper away? Then it is likely to be a sowbug. Sowbugs look similar to rolypolies, but lack the ability to curl up tightly.

sowbug

The rolypolies and sowbugs belong to a group of animals called the Isopoda. "Iso" means same, and "poda" means foot. Carefully tip yours over and see if this name fits. Does all its feet look the same? How many legs does it have? Insects have six legs and spiders have eight legs, do you think it is either of those?

upside down rolypoly

Does the isopod have eyes? Does it have antennae? What are those small spikes sticking out from the rear part?

When scientists carefully examined isopods, and then compared the isopod appendages and other characteristics to those of other groups of animals, they figured out that isopods are closely related to crabs, shrimp and lobsters. They are crustaceans. Tiny crustaceans in your garden or compost heap, isn't that cool?

What happens when you set your isopod back down? Does it run towards the light or away from the light? Does it try to hide or does it curl up? Try thinking up some more questions to ask.

Keep looking through the litter. You will probably encounter a few things less familiar than the rolypolies, but no less interesting. Have a lot of fun while you observe and learn about this hidden world.

If you can't get outside this weekend, then pick up a few books, like the ones suggested below. After reading them, crawl around the house pretending to be earthworms, crickets and isopods.

Rolypolyology (Backyard Buddies)
by Michael Elsohn Ross, Published by Carolrhoda Books, Inc. Minneapolis, 1995. ISBN 0876149018 contains detailed information and ideas for experiment with isopods.

Compost Critters
by Bianca Lavies, Published by Dutton, 1993. ISBN 0525447636 has absolutely stunning photographs of the inhabitants of a compost heap. Amazing!