Sorting Out Soil

"When I asked my second through fifth graders what soil was, they concurred that it was just made of dirt," reports St. Louis, MO, teacher Brenda Kukay. "But after dissecting and inspecting soils from different contexts, then trying to create some from scratch, they were surprised at its life and complexity, and began to appreciate it as something valuable," she adds.

"I began by setting out samples of soils from different areas -- a building site, a spot outside school, and the classroom garden -- then allowing groups of four students to freely explore the samples with all of their senses, except taste," says Brenda. "At first, the kids barely picked at it, viewing it more as yucky stuff than as something worth exploring," she adds. "But when I allowed them to carefully add water to the soils, then explore the mud, they could hardly contain their enthusiasm."

We dig in it, build with it, depend on it for nutrients and water that plants and people need to survive. Life on Earth depends on the nutrient cycling that takes place in the soil as microorganisms and larger animals recycle organic materials. It can take hundreds of years to create an inch of this precious resource, yet we often take it for granted -- or even worse -- treat it like dirt!

Challenge your students to use their observation, communication, and problem-solving skills to explore this complex, living resource and to begin to understand its place in the ecosystem. If your growing is limited to the indoor classroom, there are plenty of ways to engage your students in active soil explorations. An outdoor garden (or schoolyard nature area) provides a meaningful laboratory for exploring soils and for applying what you learn. What follows are suggestions for laying the groundwork, facilitating investigations, and digging deeper with soil inquiries.

Using the activity, "Soil Sort" from GrowLab: Activities for Growing Minds, Brenda challenged her students to work in groups as "soil surgeons" to dissect their soil samples and identify what they were made of. Teams of four students donned simulated "surgical masks" and rubber gloves, then used toothpicks and plastic spoons to tease out soil components. Students' lists of items they'd found -- bugs, dead things, roots, sandy stuff, and so on -- filled an ongoing chart titled "What's soil made of?"

After examining what soils seem to be made of, students created "mudshakes" to examine soil components as they settled out in layers, then explored how their "patients" act by testing how well different soils drain. As a culminating activity, Brenda challenged each student to use what he or she had learned about soils to create a "recipe" for a simulated soil. Brenda furnished recipe ingredients (water, bugs, seeds, sand, leaves, and so on), then invited students to try bringing them to life. "Although the missing element, time, prevented students from creating the 'real' thing (since soil takes hundreds of years to form), the activities prompted students to become sharper observers, to appreciate the life soil harbors, and to value it as more than simply something to walk on," she concludes.

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