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Science Kids on the Loose

Science Kids on the Loose

Trash Talk

Talking trash. That’s what a bunch of colleagues and I found ourselves doing last week. Some of our trash talk was the kind you might expect to hear on the basketball court (this group is not shy about making fun of each other!), but most of it was a discussion of trash and the kinds of activities that would engage kids in thinking about ways to care for the environment.
As part of our work designing a new preschool curriculum, we spend a lot of time brainstorming classroom activity ideas. Last week, we were all about the environment and conservation. I’m pleased to report that Dirt Detectives and Teeth Time were mentioned as models for great, engaging learning experiences by those who watch Sid and have tried the activities with kids. How gratifying that was! But, there’s always more science fun and learning to be had, so we had to get to work, gabbing about garbage.
One idea involved an activity for older children in which a class collects the garbage leftovers from, say, a week of lunches. After each day, kids put together all the paper waste and food scraps and plastic bags and bottles and weigh the pile. After a week, totals are added. It’s pretty surprising what a heavy burden just one week of lunch leftovers puts on our landfills and recycling centers! Over the next weeks, children learn ways to reduce the amount of garbage they create, and they apply these techniques to putting lunch on a diet – less paper, fewer disposable bottles and cans, fewer wrappers, and minimal food scraps. Then they collect and weigh for another week, comparing the amount of garbage generated before and after.
I love this activity because it is so clear what a difference just a few small changes can make in the amount of garbage we create. To adapt it for preschool, though, required that I spend a little time wearing my thinking cap.
First, time is not a concept that preschoolers understand too well. Collecting for a week, then waiting weeks, then collecting again just seems like too much waiting! When I try this, I’m going to go with one day of collecting garbage, then a week or so learning about ways to limit waste, and another day to apply this new knowledge to a new kind of packed lunch.
Also, although preschoolers can and should learn about measurement and also understand lighter and heavier, putting numbers on weights – especially larger numbers – is not something that they are likely to be able to do, so we need a different way to measure and compare. Two possibilities come to mind. One involves using a large plastic bin and just piling all the garbage in it on the first day. Take a digital photo to record the mountain of trash. On the comparison day, do the exact same thing, in the exact same container. Compare the photos to tell the trashy tale! Wet food scraps can be collected in a separate container (say, a plastic bowl) and compared in the same way.
You can get more math into this exploration by doing some counting. Use plastic gloves when touching, but count up how many juice boxes are tossed, how many plastic bottles are going to the recycling plant, or how many crumpled paper napkins are going in the can. Write those numbers down, then create a graph comparing before and after. Let’s hope those numbers go down!
In between, of course, we have some learning to do. I’d start by asking children for their ideas about ways to reduce the amount of trash that they create when they eat lunch. How can we solve this problem of too much garbage? Who knows what great ideas they might come up with? Engage children with books and the internet to research some other techniques for reducing garbage (see prior posts on the environment, too). Some methods you might learn about include composting organic food scraps, using re-usable bottles for juice and water instead of disposable ones, trying cloth napkins instead of paper, and using foodsaver containers instead of individual serving bags that just get tossed.
Changing how lunches or snacks get packed is going to necessarily involve families. You might get them on board by having kids create a poster of the new ideas they have learned through their research. Be sure to show it off to families or, even better, email a digital photo with an invitation to join the effort to create “less litter lunches.” It’s science in action and science that leads to action – the kind of action that empowers kids and families to change the world for the better and helps them say, “I’m a scientist. I can do this, too!”
If you give this idea – or a similar one – a try, please let us know how you do it and how it goes. After all, great ideas don’t end up in landfills, but we should re-use them anyway!

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