Onion Remnants

Thinking with Layers

The large amount of food waste
that has lived in the classroom
for weeks contains remnants
of many fruits and vegetables.

Onion endings and outer
layers provoke the
children to question.

Their colour and their
carefully encased peels
become protagonists in a
year long inquiry.

Claire and Leo put the red onion endings on their fingertips, and these quickly become hats, mountains, and flowers that the children exchange with each other as gifts.

“Small, medium and medium and biggest,” Laura stated as she slowly brushed her fingers on the different sections of the onions. Layers started to pop out as she gently pushed her fingers through the centre of the onion. She lined them up on the table side by side and named each piece. She then tried to piece them back together again on her finger, one on top of the other like a stackable ring.

For days, the onion skins are offered as gifts back and forth to one another with surprises inside.

Onion skins wrapped inside onion skins.

I have an onion gift for you!”, says Jacob.

Giving and opening the gifts are equally exciting.

To complexify children’s experimentations, we bring a whole onion to peel and chop. Before we return the chopped onion to Chef Kyle, we think together about the onion layers.

Jennifer notices that a whole onion still has layers inside even if we cannot see them: “You can see that there’s skin and then there’s another colour for the other layer.” The children insist that all the layers are the same but also different. “The whole onion also has layers because they look like they have different colours,” John points out.

Onion layers are layers that then become onions. The layers are all different: big, small and with shapes.” – Maria
Carrots have layers too! It is just harder to see them. You have to be strong to get the layers.” – John.
Yeah, the layers of the carrots you cannot peel, but the onions you can peel first.” – Jennifer

Children experiment with fabrics’ textures, colours and transparencies to transform themselves into onions. They become the centre of an onion.


“I want to be an onion”

The Big Onion

As we continue to carefully wrap and exchange gifts with the onion’s remnants from the pile, a problem emerges. The onion layers keep unravelling.

I’m making an onion!“, Leo announces.

We invite children to pay attention to the concept of layering by offering fabrics

“It feels tight to be an onion”

“I don’t like eating onions, but I like being an onion”

“I need another layer”
“I need a purple layer”

Children roll one at a time, two at a time, and as a whole group. They transform themselves into an onion using different fabric textures and colours: “Just like an onion would be.”

Layers are mindfully selected one by one. A child wrapped in yellow fabric becomes the heart of the onion.

We experiment with children’s ideas and questions as we try to embody an onion with multiple layers.

“I am going to see how big we can make it.” -John
“What do you think the onion feels like being
wrapped?” – Jennifer.
“I have the yellow part.” – Maria
”The way to do it is to wrap onions inside each other and roll and roll another layer on top.”- John.

John suggests that they can put the onion back together: “I can match the parts and I am making an onion. This is the purple one and this is the red one.”

We offer John’s suggestion to make an onion to the entire group. “Can I make the biggest onion?” Sarah asks. “We can make the biggest onion, like this big!“, John replies while his hands are stretched out.

The children carefully and slowly wrap the onion layers trying to make a big onion. Day after day, they experiment with the texture, size and thickness of each layer. A layer choreography emerges as layers are put into conversation with each other.

The children collectively decide to follow a pattern to create the big onion: start with the yellow centre piece, add in layers of crunchy pieces, and finish with sticky layers in between.

“The sticky layers holds
the layers together.”

Children pass the onion around. Each person adds a new layer on top of the previous layer. The onion grows in size From the size of a golf ball, it becomes the size of a baseball.

“We want to make
the biggest onion, let’s
put it back together.”
– Anna

In putting the onion back together, the children encounter yet another problem. They quickly run out of sticky layers. We discuss how we might hold the onion together. We collectively decide to sew the biggest onion using thread and a needle. Children split the thread so that it is thin enough to fit through the eye of the needle, put the needle through the onion flesh, and sew layer on top of layer. Slowly each onion piece stay together, creating layers of crunchy onion skin and soft flesh in between. “It is working, it is sticking together!”, Myles announces.

Stitch by stich, the thread intertwines with their stories
about the big onion.

Through the process of making the big onion, Maria notices that mould is growing inside the sewn layers of the big onion.

There’s green and slimy stuff.” – Maria
No. They are white,” – Vivaan
There’s more white stuff and brown stuff. It’s
” – John
There’s sticky tacky stuff.” – Tommy

“Does it feel the same?”, John asks. “No”, reply other children. “Does it smell the same?”, John asked again. “No.” “It looks different”, John observes. “It also smells different,” Jennifer echoes, trying to sniff the onion, “It smells like chemical candy”. She continues, “It did change. It smells differently.” “The onion also changes colour , just like me,” Maria adds. “The brown stuff has a smell. I think it will also attract skunks and raccoons,” John announces, then asks, “What are your thoughts, Tommy?” “Maybe the bugs are eating it”, Tommy replies.

As children story how the bugs have been eating the onion, they make chewing and chomping sounds. To encourage children to further story the decaying onion layers, we seal the layers in a jar.

I noticed something, more brown , it attracted something. This time there were different animal bites. Raccoons took a bite and the skunks noticed. But this time bears took a bite! It’s attracting bears!” – John

“The onion is breaking.” – John
”Breaking?” – Tomm
“More mould.” – John

The mould will turn into a monster mould.” – Tommy
It will not turn into a monster mould . It will get mouldier but not into a monster mould.” – John
The onion is not just an onion anymore, it is attracting other living things. It attracts skunks, raccoons, bugs, and now mould. The mould means it is starting to fall apart and die.” – John
Let’s make a small onion. The onion moulds because it has many layers.” – Tommy

We offer pencil and paper to the children to document the changes through a collective drawing. The mould on the onion becomes part of the drawing.

Inspired by Thane’s idea that a small onion with fewer layers would not mould, we propose to the children to sew small onions. Children agree on seven layers for the small onion and suggest that we put the small onion in the fridge.

“The fridge is where we kept the other food.”- Jennifer
“It will be fresh there.” – Maria
“It won’t get mouldy” – Jennifer

We notice that the small onion in the fridge does not gather mould like the big onion does.

“It is changing colours because it is getting smaller.” – Maria
“The small onion is not getting mould because it is so powerful that it can save itself.” – Jennifer
“It is not getting mouldy , but it is shrinking and changing colours . How do we make an onion that stays the same?” – John

“Onion paper. Maybe we will see if it gets mouldy or maybe it won’t.” – John
“Oh no! I am getting mouldy !” -Maria

“We are paper onion!” – Maria

Returning to the big onion

Following John’s question, Maria suggests that we return to making layers with fabric. Other children propose to also use paper to make the onion bigger. Wrapping themselves using the different textures that fabric and paper offer, the children mimic the layers of the onion.

”The paper makes the crunch sound of the onion.”
“We need soft fabrics.”
“Crunchy layers too!”
“That way it looks like an onion.”
“I am an onion!”

Fabric becomes the onion’s softer shell. Large pages of newspaper transform into the stiff onion layers. Children’s bodies are the centre of the onion. Six children lie down in a row, side by side, and ask educators to add layers around them.

Recognizing children’s curiosity about mould and their desire for a “huge onion,” we propose creating a large onion using papier maché.

Day after day, we tear paper
and glue it to simulate
onion skins and layers.

In deciding how long John’s reach is, we suggest measuring his arms so that if he is not present, we will still know how big to make the big onion. Children suggest we trace John’s body on paper to get his arms’ reach:

“A paper onion!”
– Maria
“And maybe see if it gets mouldy .” – John
“We need to make small pieces so that way it looks like an onion.” – John
“Big layers.” – Maria
“We need to make one that doesn’t
mould !” – Maria
“NO MOULD!” – John
“Different newspaper sizes because there are different onion layers” – Maria
“We don’t eat this onion.” – Myles

We revisit the onion-making over several weeks, inviting children to think how large to make it. Holding out their arms, they decide to make it as big as they can reach. We spend time measuring our arms to determine whose are longest. Collectively, we decide that Leo has the longest reach:

By the time the children had moved on to kindergarten, no mould had grown in the big papier maché onion. Yet, the ever growing mould in the sewn onion in the jar continued to spark new stories, ideas, and speculations among the children and educators.

The big onion has now welcomed another group of children who are inspired by the many conversations about onions, layers, and mould.

Following onions and their transformation made us think with and embody waste processes in new ways.