Learning & Development: Science: Down to earth

Pat Brunton and Linda Thornton
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Explore and experiment on the world beneath our feet with activities from Pat Brunton and Linda Thornton.

All around us in the outside world is a wonderful resource which, when used imaginatively, will engage children's interest and support many different aspects of their learning and development.

Spending time exploring the earth beneath our feet - the soil, stones, plant material and small creatures found there - will build children's awareness of the natural world, provide a range of interesting sensory experiences and offer vast opportunities for open-ended exploration and investigation. By encouraging children to explore the structure of the earth, you will be sparking the interest of the civil engineers, surveyors, architects, mining engineers, geologists, ecologists, and archaeologists of the future.

Exploring soil

Practitioners can make the most of the learning opportunities afforded by children's exploration of rocks, stones and soil if they have an understanding themselves of the structure of the earth and where soil comes from.

Soil is formed from the breakdown of the rocks that make up the earth's crust. Over time, rocks break down into smaller pieces through the action of weathering. This is a very slow process, occurring over millions of years through the action of rain, wind, ice, mechanical pressure or chemical action.

Soil is made up of a mixture of small particles of rock, decaying plant material known as humus, water and air. The structure of the soil in any particular place is largely dependent on the type of rock common in the locality, but is also affected by how much rain falls in the area.

Sandy, gritty soils are formed from the breakdown of sandstone and allow water to pass through them very quickly. Heavy clay soils result from the weathering of shale or mudstone and resist the passage of water. Loam is a mixture of both clay and sand and is relatively free-draining and easy to dig.

Dig, dig, dig

Children often use gardening tools when helping to plant seeds outdoors, but how often do they have the opportunity to simply dig in the soil? Digging on a large scale involves physical effort and co-ordination and can be a very satisfying process. Designate a patch of soil large enough for several children to dig in and provide strong, child-sized tools for them to use.

  • - Set a challenge - who can dig the deepest hole? Encourage the children to solve problems, persist at their task and collaborate with one another.
  • - Investigate which tool is the 'best' for digging. Does a trowel work as well as a spade?
  • - What else can you find in the soil? Look for stones, decaying plant material, worms and beetles.
  • - Once the children have dug a hole, suggest pouring some water into it. What happens to the water - does it drain away or form a puddle?
  • - Talk about the texture of the soil - is it fine and sandy, or heavy and full of clay? What does it feel like in your hands? This is a good opportunity to build up a whole new vocabulary of 'texture words'.
  • - Try collecting soil from several different places. Is it always the same colour, texture and composition?
  • - Help the children to put a small amount of soil in the bottom of a clear plastic bottle and add some water. Screw on the top, swirl the water and soil mixture around and then leave it to settle. Look at the mixture and talk about what you can see. Where is the plant material? Where are the stones? What does the water look like?
  • - Provide a selection of containers for making mud pies. Encourage the children to mix together different amounts of soil and water to make mud of differing consistency. They could use this for drawing by using twigs or could try building walls and houses. What happens to these when the sun shines? What happens to them when it rains?
  • - Spend time finding out more about earthworms, beetles or larvae you discover in the soil. This is a good opportunity to use non-fiction books or search on the internet.
  • - Talk about the other animals that have their homes under the ground. Provide picture books and read stories about moles, rabbits, badgers and mice.
  • - Collect up all the stones you find in the soil and suggest that the children become rock detectives.

The rock detectives

Exploring the stones and pebbles found in the soil provides a good opportunity to develop observational skills. You may want to add to your stone collection with a selection of rocks and pebbles with interesting shapes, sizes, colours, textures and patterns. Provide some paint shade cards from a DIY store, hand magnifiers, a stand magnifier and drawing materials.

  • - Encourage the children to look closely at the collection of stones and pebbles. What do they feel like? Can you find any sharp spiky stones? Are any of the stones smooth?
  • - Look carefully with the magnifying glass or the stand magnifier. What can you see? Can you find shapes or patterns in the stones?
  • - Are all the stones the same colour? Suggest that the children sort them into different colours. Are some of the stones more than one colour?
  • - Use the collection of stones and pebbles for counting, sorting and classifying.
  • - Invite the children to choose their favourite stone. Ask them to describe it. You could turn this into a game where you or one of the children describe a stone and the other children have to identify which stone you are talking about.
  • - Suggest that the children use the paint shade card to try to match the colours in their favourite stone. Do the colours match exactly? Do you need more than one shade card?
  • - Encourage each child to choose one of the shade cards and to take it outside and see if they can find anything which exactly matches the colours on his/her card. Invite them to use their own words to describe the colours they can see.

Babies and pebbles

Babies will enjoy exploring a collection of large smooth pebbles. Collect as wide a range of colours as possible, including some pebbles that are too large for them to lift up. Make sure none of the pebbles are so small that they could pose a choking hazard.

Under supervision, encourage the babies to explore the pebbles - what they feel like, what they sound like, how easy they are to lift up, whether they feel cool or warm.


  • - how they handle and manipulate the pebbles
  • - which of their senses they use to find out about the pebbles
  • - what they try to do with them.
  • - how long individual babies play with the pebbles.


Some practitioners, and indeed many parents, may have concerns about encouraging children to explore soil, because they perceive it to be dirty, unhygienic and a health hazard. Yes, soil is by its very nature 'dirty', but this does not mean it is a hazardous substance that children should be kept away from.

As part of their normal risk assessment process, practitioners will always ensure that outdoor areas where children play are free from contamination with animal faeces, which could contain harmful bacteria and parasites.

That said, playing with soil, stones and leaves simply exposes children to a wide range of non-harmful micro-organisms that are as much a part of the living world as we humans are. Evidence shows that encountering these micro-organisms at an early age is beneficial for young children, helping them to build up their immunity to a wide range of naturally occurring bacteria and moulds found in soil.

The most effective way to ensure children's safety is not to prevent them from playing with soil, or to insist that they wear plastic gloves, but rather to teach them the skills of washing their hands effectively. Demonstrate how to do this and make it an essential part of the daily routine - for children and adults alike.


  • - National Science and Engineering Week runs from 12 to 21 March this year, with 'Earth' as its theme. There are a number of events around the country for children and families, plus downloadable resources from the British Science Association website: www.britishscienceassociation.org/web/nsew
  • - Children's gardening tools, magnifiers and collecting trays are available from Reflections on Learning: www.reflectionsonlearning.co.uk


Science in the Early Years: Building firm foundations from birth to five by Pat Brunton and Linda Thornton (www.alcassociates.co.uk) gives practitioners an understanding of the science behind a wide range of activities that are commonly provided in an early years setting. The book also looks at the skills and dispositions of science and highlights what to look for when observing babies, toddlers and pre-school children exploring and investigating.

Its publisher, SAGE, is offering a 20 per cent discount on the £19.99 title plus free postage and packaging to readers of Nursery World until 31 April 2010. To order your copy of the book, please call Customer Services on 020 7324 8703, or visit www.sagepub.co.uk/education and quote the reference: UK10DM001.

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