Composting with Worms!

COMPOSTING WITH WORMS

What’s your favorite animal? I love worms. Yes, really. Next to snails, they are my favorite land creature. They’re fascinating and, even with how underappreciated they often are, worms do a lot for us and we can learn so much from them. Worms teach us that no matter how small we may be, we are capable of making big differences in the world. 

Let’s work together to treasure the small and “disgusting” creatures. They have a job to do to maintain balance in the Earth’s ecosystems. It’s up to us to protect the tiny creatures who eat rotting material beneath our feet. Let’s pass this knowledge and respect on to the next generation of nature keepers. 

Below is a fun activity that you can do with your classroom, or your children, or with any age group to learn all about worms!

Group Activity: Build an Upcycled Worm Habitat!

First, start off by asking your class/group to share what they already know about worms. You will likely be surprised by how much they already know and how much you can learn from them! Here are some example questions that I enjoy asking before we get started on the activity: 

  • Do you think that worms and snakes are the same?
    • Worms and snakes are not the same type of creature. Actually, they aren’t even related.  
    • Snakes and worms have similarly shaped bodies, but they are very different. Learn more about the differences between snakes and worms here.
  • Can you show me how worms move?
    • Worms have strong muscles that help them slide through life. They also have tiny hairs on their bodies that help them move when they need to and stay still when they need to. 
  • Where do worms live?
    • Worms live in underground tunnels that they make in the soil. These tunnels increase air and water movement in soil.
  • What do worms eat?
    • Worms are decomposers, right? So they eat rotting organic matter like leaves, fruit, roots, etc. that are left behind by other creatures, including humans.
  • What happens to a worm’s food after it is eaten?
    • The worm’s body absorbs the nutrients that it needs from the rotting food and soil and then poops the extra stuff out.
    • Worm poop is called castings and castings are full of nutrients. We can add worm castings to the soil in our gardens where we grow delicious fruits and veggies. If worms are already present in the soil, then so are their castings. Nutrients from the castings and healthy soil are then transferred to our fruits and veggies and when we eat these foods, the nutrients are transferred to us. 
  • Do humans and worms have anything in common?
    • Yes! 
      • We move around using our muscles and so do worms. 
      • We both breathe! Humans breathe in and out through our noses and mouths using our lungs. Worms breathe in and out too, but they do not have noses or lungs. Worms breathe through their skin. They need a moist environment in order to absorb oxygen through their skin to breathe effectively. However, worms cannot swim so they can’t survive in a flooded habitat. 
      • Worms and humans are sensitive to temperature, moisture, light and vibrations.
  • Worms are small and weird. Are they really that important? 
    • Worms and other decomposers are very important. Without them it would take much longer for organic rotting material to move on to the next level of the soil cycle, interrupting the balance. Life might get pretty stinky under these circumstances.
    • Worms help to ensure that soil is healthy by increasing air and water circulation via their tunnels.. 
    • A great way to communicate how important worms are to maintaining a healthy balanced ecosystem is through observation. 

Next, introduce the activity and together we will build a worm habitat! Depending on the size of the group you are working with, you might want to split them up and have each group create their own habitat. Keep in mind that if you split into groups you will need to double the materials list accordingly. 

Materials:

  • One plastic container with lid I like to use an empty 32oz pretzel container like the one pictured below. It’s clear so your group can make observations over time.
  • One empty container to act as a drip plate (I like to upcycle an empty plastic salad greens container for this)
  • A drill or another tool to carefully make air holes in the container
  • Towel or blanket to cover the container. Worms like the darkness so loosely throw a towel or blanket over the container so you can still observe them occasionally without disturbing them too much.
  • Newspaper or other paper material, like paper bags or toilet paper rolls (equivalent of 10-12 pages)
  • Food scraps (see below for what kinds of food worms can and cannot eat)
  • Water source 
  • Red wiggler worms! You can purchase worms here or you can ask a friend to let you adopt some of their worms! The larger your container is, the more worms you’ll need. 

Instructions: 

Step 1: Clean out your plastic pretzel container with soap and water and remove the label if you’d like a better view of the worms. 

Step 2: Slowly and gently drill air holes in the container using a small drill bit. Start from the top and continue making holes in columns about 3 inches apart around the entirety of the container until you get to the bottom. Then flip the container over and drill about 10 holes in the bottom. Drill about 10 holes into the lid. 

Step 3: Rip your newspaper pages into strips. Then run the strips under water until they are soaked through. Add them to the container. 

Step 4: Add worms to the bin. 

Step 5: Prepare your food scraps by cutting or breaking them into small pieces. You can even blend your scraps. Add a handful to the bin in-between the layers of newspaper.  

Step 6:  Place a dry sheet of newspaper or cardboard on top of the worms and scraps. This helps to keep moisture levels balanced and can manage any possible odors. 

Step 7:  Screw the lid on the container, place your habitat in the plastic salad container (drip plate) to catch compost tea, and cover with your towel or blanket.  

***Feed worms once a week. If the habitat appears to be too dry, spray it with water. If it seems too moist, add more dry newspaper (you can also add toilet paper rolls, shredded paper bags, and other compostable materials instead of newspaper). I like to add more moist paper each time I add food. This is a very small habitat so keep in mind that you may need to eventually scale up if you really enjoy this process. Have fun observing the worms and be proud that you’re diverting food waste from the landfill. This project is a great opportunity to have journals handy for children to record what they see!

What Can Worms Eat?

Worms can eat most fruits, veggies, and beans. Do not feed your worms citrus fruits or peels. Add starchy foods like potatoes and rice in moderation. 

What Can’t Worms Eat?

Never add animal products like meat, bones, dairy, or anything greasy to your worm habitat. 

This infographic is a helpful guide. Hanging one of these on your fridge is very helpful if you’re ever unsure. Other things you can add to your bin include hair, clipped fingernails, and dryer lint! 

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Bonus activity: Take your group on a nature walk after it rains. Whether you’re out in the woods, in the middle of a city, or in your backyard, you will likely see worms out and about taking advantage of the cloudy, damp day. Take your time and observe your surroundings. Upturn rocks and sticks and logs to see what creepy crawlies live underneath. Maybe even bring journals and writing utensils for your group to draw what they see!

Click Below to See Some Favorite Worm Books to Add to Your Classroom Library: 

Contributed by Carissa Marks
Carissa’s background is in social and environmental justice with a focus on sustainable food access through outreach. She finds joy in engaging communities by using public gardens as educational tools to combat food insecurity. In addition to positively conveying the importance of a plant-based lifestyle, Carissa enjoys sharing interesting facts and trying to change perspectives about creatures that people often find “disgusting”, like snails and worms! She lives in the DC area with her husband, two children (ages 13 and 10), and their amazing, albeit smelly, rescue dog.

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