Science ideas for young children: decomposition hike

Kids know that leaves fall to the ground in autumn, but do they know what happens next? Take a hike through the woods to teach youth about decomposition.

Take a walk with kids outside and help them understand how falling leaves are part of the food chain. Photo credit: ANR Communications | MSU Extension
Take a walk with kids outside and help them understand how falling leaves are part of the food chain. Photo credit: ANR Communications | MSU Extension

In the autumn of each year, brightly colored leaves start to fall to the ground and kids enjoy playing in them. As they enjoy their time outside, kids may wonder what happened to the leaves from last year? Take a walk with them through your yard or in the woods to discover the answer to their question and the underdog of the food web: the decomposers.

In most elementary schools, kids learn about basic food chains: plants get their energy from the sun, herbivores eat the plants and carnivores eat the herbivores. The decomposers, the critter that consume dead plants, dead animals and excrement, are often omitted when teaching about this cycle. However, they have an important role in our environment. As you help young children learn more about decomposer, here are some questions and experiments you can try together when taking a decomposition hike through a natural environment such as the woods.

  • Look around and notice where the leaves pile up and where they don’t. Why is that the case? Does the wind blow them to certain areas? Do they decompose faster in some places than others?
  • Are there mushrooms in certain places? What are the ideal places for mushrooms to grow? Mushrooms usually feed on decaying plant material. If there are mushrooms growing in a lawn, did there used to be a tree growing there? Is there a stump underground? Talk to some people who might remember what used to grow there. Try to identify the mushrooms. WARNING: Do not eat any mushrooms without positive identification from an expert and warn children not eat mushrooms either.
  • Roll over a rotting log and take a look at all the different critters living there. You may see things such as ants, sow bugs, pill bugs and if you are lucky, a salamander under there.
  • What makes a log start to crumble? Why doesn’t your wooden door or table break down the same way?
  • How long does it take a fallen tree branch to completely disappear? Check on the same spot and notice any differences in the wood over time. Can you find a log that has almost completely decomposed? Put out two logs made from different types of wood, watch them over time and see if there is a difference in how they break down.
  • Dig a hole in the soil. How far down can you see organic matter? Can you see bits of leaves and sticks in the soil? Do you notice any color changes as you dig down? Why do you think that happens?
  • Leave a banana peel outside where the children can observe it each day. Ask the kids to predict how many days it will take before the peel completely disappears. Go back and check each day to see what happens. Is anything eating the banana peel? How will it disappear? Will the peel just get shorter? Will the stem last longer than the rest of the peel?

Michigan State University Extension recognizes there are many opportunities for science education that occur in the natural world, including this one with decomposers. This lesson can be conducted by any group working with children, including families, day cares, schools or 4-H clubs. Try these simple experiments to better understand this forgotten player in food web: the decomposers.

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