Teaching Tykes to Value Even the Lowly Worm

PAST the regimented rows of tulips, narcissus, and primroses in bloom at the New England Spring Flower Show sits a humble plastic bin with holes poked through it. For the children who visit the show, this bin may provide a more irresistible attraction than the most impressive flower. The bin is chock-full of worms -- red worms to be exact.

Cynthia Klemmer, children's program coordinator for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, presides over the crawling hordes and feeds them a ration of food waste. Eventually the worms work through the garbage, breaking it down until, voila! it becomes a rich organic fertilizer.

(Children can learn about the worms firsthand at the Children's Festival on Friday, March 17, at the flower show.)

Classroom teachers all over the United States are recognizing the benefits of these squirming wonders, and red worms have taken up residence in inner-city and suburban schools, office buildings, as well as houses and apartments.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Affairs operates two experimental bins to aid in the reduction of waste in state office buildings. As trash-removal costs continue to increase and recycling takes hold in communities, composting with worms has become popular.

Vermiculture, as it's called, has ''science project'' written all over it. For little money and not much maintenance, kids can set up a composting bin, watch their lunch scraps disappear courtesy of the worms, and turn out soil-enriching material that can be added to plants. In the process, they learn about the life cycle of the forest floor, how worms create channels in the soil so that surface water can reach plant roots, and help keep organic wastes out of landfills.

Ms. Klemmer, who takes her worms on road shows in the Horticultural Society's Plantmobile, says that children's responses go from ''yuck'' to ''cool'' after spending 30 minutes with the invertebrates. Some of the typical questions are: ''Do they bite?'' (No, worms have no teeth); ''How do they move?'' (Like a Slinky, Klemmer says, with one part moving and pulling the other along); and ''Why are they slimy?'' (Because they secrete mucus to help ease their way along the ground).

The first question teachers ask, according to Klemmer, is whether the worms can escape from their box through the holes drilled for air and drainage. She assures them that worms dislike light, and feel safer nestled deep inside the bin. The other misconception is that worm bins stink. The holes help air circulate, and the resulting odor is a tolerable, earthy smell.

Klemmer has seen children become quite attached to their crawly friends. In her classes, she uses an oversized stuffed worm named Willoughby. She tries to explain the biology simply. For example, she compares the effect of nutrients (found in worm byproducts) on plants to that of vitamins for people.

In the worm-composting business, no one gets very far without reading, ''Worms Eat My Garbage,'' by biologist and worm booster Mary Appelhof. It's the comprehensive guide to starting a worm bin. The author followed that book with two new products geared toward the classroom, including the workbook, ''Worms Eat Our Garbage,'' which offers experiments and worksheets for teachers, and a 26-minute video, ''Wormania!''

Ms. Appelhof's National Science Foundation grant helped her break new ground with the video: Viewers can see a living worm under a microscope, watch its five hearts beating, and see the thin tube through which its food passes - information that before had to be supplied through diagrams. Appelhof also taped rare footage of a night crawler coming out of its den to retrieve a decaying twig. In addition to the images, children will enjoy the spritely music written by entertainer Billy B., which weaves scientific terms into humorous lyrics.

Back at the flower show, Klemmer stirs through the several-weeks-old bin of damp shredded newspaper, decomposing matter, and pink critters. She points out the sprinkling of coarse, dark particles that are black gold to gardeners - worm castings.

Her little charges dive for cover, avoiding the spotlight that they so richly deserve as nature's recyclers.

*To learn more about the Plantmobile write: The Massachusetts Horticultural Society, 300 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, MA 02115. Mary Appelhof's books and video can be ordered by writing: Flower Press, 10332 Shaver Road, Kalamazoo, MI 49002.

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