For an Earth Day activity that’s fun and just a little bit different than the usual, a “Soil Safari” is a great way to teach kids about an often overlooked part of the environment.
Even though many people think of it as just plain “dirt,” soil has a very important role in our environment. It is so important in fact, that it is considered one of the four elements of life along with air, sun, and water. Soil gives plants a place to put their roots so they can grow upright instead of falling over. It provides a home to millions of tiny creatures, some who break down decaying matter into plant food. Soil stores this food, and also collects and stores water when it rains or snows.
During this Earth Day activity, your kids will learn what makes up soil and gain an understanding of the importance of soil in the environment.
What is soil made of?
So what exactly is soil? It isn’t just ground up bits of rock or some dust that blew in from the next county. Soil is made of a combination of nonliving (called abiotic) and living (biotic) things.
The biotic parts of soil are pretty amazing. They may include small organisms such as worms, grubs, bacteria, slugs, and roly polys. Biotic parts also include roots or decaying matter like leaves, twigs, and dead bugs and other critters. The abiotic parts of soil are what people call dirt. These are minerals that make up soil and are either sand, clay, or silt, or some combination of these. Water and air also make up the abiotic parts of soil.
Who would have thought that dirt contained so many things?
Planning the safari
The goal of this activity is to take soil samples from different areas and compare the similarities and/or differences back at home. A city park usually has the most varied assortment of soil types and is a great place to begin. Since you and your kids will be digging holes, getting permission from the parks department is important. However, parks aren’t the only places to find samples. Back yards (both organically cared for and chemically treated yards), a vacant lot or road side, school yards, under trees, along rivers or ponds, or dirt alleys are other places where dirt samples can be collected.
Collecting the samples
Items needed for this activity include a small shovel, marker, and several gallon ice cream buckets (with snap on lids) or empty vegetable bags.
To collect the dirt samples, press the tip of the shovel into the ground as far as it will go, and lift out a mid sized scoopful of dirt. Place the sample into the ice cream bucket, snap on the lid, and mark on the side of the bucket exactly where the sample came from. Once you and your kids have collected specimens from different locations, it’s time to bring them back to the “lab” for a closer look.
A closer look
To examine the soil, first cover a large work table with newspaper and then pour the samples in different locations on the table. Be sure to leave plenty of space between the piles of dirt so they don’t get mixed up during this activity.
Working with one sample at a time, have your kids break apart the soil with their fingers and take a close look at what it is made up of. On a blank sheet of paper, they can record what they see and smell. Things for the kids to take note of should include the color and smell, how the soil feels in their hands, the texture, the moisture content, and what sorts of living and nonliving things were found. They should also look for signs of pollution, such as litter that hasn’t broken down or automotive oil.
Once your kids have analyzed each soil sample, they will be able to draw quite a few conclusions from their findings.
What they will learn
On a soil safari, kids will learn that not all dirt is the same. Some of the things that kids will discover from this activity might include the following:
1. Some soil types have more sand or silt, while others may be more clay like.
2. How to describe the physical properties of soil such as sticky, clumpy, grainy, wet, or powder-like.
3. That different plants have different soil needs.
4. What tiny animals make soil their home.
5. How decaying plant matter (compost) can improve texture.
6. The impact pesticides and ground pollution have on tiny animals living in the ground.
7. What soil conditions allow roots to grow easier.
8. Not all soils smell the same.
9. Why certain types of soil hold more water than other.
Soil is really a fascinating science and there is so many more things to discover than just the few things listed above. For more soil related activities, the following three sites are filled with interactive games and experiments that are fun for kids of all ages.