Don’t treat soil like dirt!

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Soil is a precious resource, yet most of us pay little attention to the stuff under our feet.  It is the medium in which we grow our food and the foundation on which we build our cities. Soils filter our water, detoxify our pollutants, decompose our waste and hold vast reserves of the nutrients required for life. Soils are also fragile, taking thousands to million of years to develop but destroyed in minutes by human development.

For the past three years, myself and my fellow soil enthusiast Aurora have spent our Saturdays in December showing kids how awesome soil and the microbes that inhabit it actually are. We’ve developed a number of soil and microbiology activities to teach kids of all ages what soil actually is, who lives in it, and why we should value it. The take-home message? Don’t treat soil like dirt! Human beings (and nearly ever other species on earth) depend on soil for our very survival.

Here are some highlights from the last two weeks of the workshop:

Checking out some protozoa under the microscope!
Making a hypothesis before conducting an experiment!
Making a hypothesis before conducting an experiment!
MAKING SOIL! This is always a favorite. Want to make soil at home with your kids? Check out my homebrew recipe below...
MAKING SOIL! This is always a favorite. Want to make soil at home with your kids? Check out my homebrew recipe below…
Probably the coolest thing I've ever made in photoshop.
Probably the coolest thing I’ve ever made in photoshop.

We are even participating in an international, crowd-sourced science experiment known as the Tea Bag Index experiment to measure rates of decomposition in different soil types! This is a fun and easy experiment you can do in your backyard. All you need is a few teabags and a scale.  Decomposition, the breakdown of once-living organic matter and conversion into soil organic matter, is an important step in the global carbon cycle that is driven primarily by soil microorganisms. Ultimately, decomposed carbon is respired back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Scientists are currently trying to understand how global climate change will affect decomposition and the microbial “respiration” of CO2 from soils. Projects such as the Tea Bag Index experiment provide scientists with valuable data that can be used to inform predictions about changes to the global carbon cycle. For more information on the Tea Bag Index experiment check out the website:

Or click here to access the protocol and get involved directly!

Most importantly, our workshop strives to underscore the importance of soils in our everyday lives.  Kids (and parents) often come unsure of what exactly soil is or why it should matter to them, and often enjoy the experience so much that they return week after week.

Live in the Philly area and got kids? Check us out, every Saturday for the rest of the month!

And since I can’t seem to stop geeking out about this stuff, here are some more cool resources to check out on soil science education:

USDA NRCS Healthy Soil Fact Sheets


6 thoughts on “Don’t treat soil like dirt!”

  1. It’s so important to teach kids about this but as an educator, I know how hard it is to get parents to say it’s okay to let the kids explore. There’s so much talk about allergies and fear of them falling ill that we can’t really do anything about it. Which is depressing. We’ve been trying to get the kids to maintain their own greenhouses in an online role playing gaming ( and it’s going well so far but I really wish that one day we can have something like your workshop. Crossing Fingers till then! Great job. I’m going to try print out your soil recipe. Will try it with my kids soon.

    1. I think anything that gets kids interested in the natural world is great and video games are definitely an important emerging media for that. The new Animal Crossing game that recently came out for the Nintendo 3DS has a museum where kids can deposit animals and plants they’ve caught around the world, and actually read facts about them. But I agree, there is definitely something lost if no hands-on play / exploration is allowed. It allows kids to connect what they’re studying with their real lives. Unfortunately parents seem increasingly concerned about anything that might put their kids in danger- including touching dirt, of all things! I hope all the new health studies coming out that link growing up in an overly-sterile environment to chronic allergies and other health problems starts to turn some people’s thinking on this around.

      1. If you don’t develop a resistance, then you will always have to stay in a sterile environment and you will fall ill more often. That’s my theory anyway but I’m not a doctor. I agree with everything you say. I need to check out Animal Crossing. Thanks Maddie.

  2. I think this really would be an excellent addition to the elementary school science curriculum. Coupled with a lesson on the life of soil and maybe some online research and actual gardening, I think the kids could really get into it.

    1. Thanks Adrienne! Yes, dirt and soil are the same thing, I just like to make the point that soil shouldn’t be treateed like dirt because it is such a complex and important ecosystem 😀

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