Science ideas for young children: Playing in the dirt

Digging in your garden? Experiment with the soil and learn about nature and science.

What is soil? Often, we take it for granted as we walk and play on it. It is under our feet and grows our lawns, gardens and trees. Below are a series of questions and experiments recommended by Michigan State University Extension you can do with youth to discover more about soil. The focuses of these lessons aren’t to simply impart knowledge, but to facilitate the joy of exploration and discovery. This is not designed to “give youth the answers,” but to empower them to ask questions, explore and discover on their own. When a young person asks a question, resist the urge to answer it, and instead say, “What do you think?”

  1. Start the discussion by asking some questions. What is soil? Where does it come from? Is soil the same as dirt?
  2. Dig some holes in different places and notice how the soil varies from place to place. Can you see color changes in the soil? Why might soil in different places have different colors? Do you think there are limits to the color soil could be? Do you think you could find a florescent pink soil somewhere? Do wet soils have the same color as dry soils? Why or why not?
  3. Do you think you would find water if you dug deep enough?
  4. How does soil feel? Examine the physical properties of different soils with your fingers. Does it feel gritty, like sand? Can you mold it like clay? Why might soil feel different in different places? Do you think different soils would grow plants better in different soils? Look where different plants are growing, then examine the soil underneath them.
  5. Take an empty, clear container with a tight fitting lid (a water bottle or sauce jar works fine). Add a small handful of soil to the jar along with some water and shake it up. Notice how the soil settles out. Do you notice layers? Do different soils separate differently?
  6. Do you think water will “soak in” to soils differently? Take a metal can with both ends cut out and have a race. Push the cans into soil the same distance and fill them with water. Pour the same amount water and see which can drains the fastest.
  7. How does the soil clump? Does all soil clump the same? Chunks of soil are called peds. Do you think having clumpy soil is good or bad for plants?
  8. Try a slake test. Suspend a clump of soil in a clear container with a piece of chicken wire or hardware cloth. Notice how the soil breaks apart (or doesn’t) in water. Why does this happen?
  9. Take a stick or metal stake and try to push it into the ground. Is it easier to push into the ground in some areas? Why? How might that affect the ability of plants to grow? Where do you think it would be easiest or most difficult to put a stake into the ground?

Spend some time outside in the soil and discover more dirt in this International Year of Soils website.

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