Without soil, we would be hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless and breathless. And it’s not just humans who depend on soil – it is a habitat for a quarter of the Earth’s biodiversity. Soil cleans and stores our water, breaks down our wastes, recycles nutrients and even helps moderate climate change – yet we often treat this precious resource like dirt.
Soil science for beginners
Students are familiar with getting dirty, but soil as a science topic is often a completely new realm for young learners.
We dug a MASSIVE hole, and I didn’t know the ground went that far down.Flynn, year 2 student
Hub articles introduce young students to the basics of soil science:
- Soil means life – soil keeps us alive. We need to protect soil to protect life.
- What is in soil? – soil is made of mineral particles, organic matter, air and water.
- Soils are all different – soils differ from place to place due to how and when they were formed.
- Soil is a habitat – soil is home to things we can see and lots of things that we cannot.
- Soil scientists get to work outside and no one worries if they get dirty!
- Māori were New Zealand’s first soil scientists and modified soils to promote crop growth.
Science and education – collaboration at its best
Hub's content developer Angela Schipper and soil scientist Louis Schipper have collaborated on soil science resources for over 20 years. They’ve published both print and online materials and dug holes with children at Playcentre, schools and Cub Scout camps. Angela says, “Louis gets to use some pretty cool equipment with his graduate students – but a spade is all children need to get started.”
Often students' only experience with soil is either opening a bag of potting mix or planting the topsoil in the veggie garden. These are pretty uniform and unrepresentative examples of soil. Dig a little deeper – literally – and it gets a lot more interesting. Soils can be white, yellow, red, black and many shades in between.
Developing observation skills and getting just a little bit dirty
The simple hands-on activities use observation – both visual and tactile – to learn about soil. They’ve been tried and tested in multiple classrooms – they work!
What makes up soil? uses an interactive or paper-based graphic organizer to explore student thinking about soil. This is a good pre/post student activity. Use it in combination with the teacher resource Alternative conceptions about soil.
Dig a hole begins with the picture book Sam and Dave Dig a Hole before moving outside with a spade. It supports the science capability 'Gather and interpret data'.
Observing soil differences uses soil samples from students’ homes – and online resources – to view how soils differ from location to location.
Observing soil microbes – grow vibrantly coloured soil microbes and watch as these microbes soft boil an egg in a compost bin.
New Zealand soil creatures combines reading, viewing, writing and presenting with New Zealand’s unusual mummified caterpillar and bioluminescent earthworms.
Investigating soil moisture content supports the science capability 'Engage with science'. Students can record and share their data on a soil moisture database.
Using soil moisture maps – read and interpret aspects of soil moisture maps and compare data by location and over time. It supports the science capability Interpret representations.
Investigating earthworms explores soil ecosystems – from an earthworm's point of view!