Cover image: Soil means life

Soil means life

Soil, dirt, mud, earth... generally this is all the sort of stuff that we're supposed to wipe off our feet, or wash off our hands, before entering the house, sitting down to eat, or going to bed. But soil is a precious thing - without it we wouldn't be able to grow crops and sustain life. Depending on where you are on the planet, it can take between 100 and 1,000 years for just one centimetre of soil to build up. Yet it can be washed or blown away in an instant, and more of it is being built over and put out of use, as cities expand.

Where does soil fit in the curriculum?

  • KS 1&2 Science, Year 3: Pupils should be taught to: [plants] 'explore the requirements of plants for life and growth (air, light, water, nutrients from soil, and room to grow) and how they vary from plant to plant'; [rocks] 'recognise that soils are made from rocks and organic matter'.
  • KS 3 Biology - Nutrition & digestion: Pupils should be taught about 'plants making carbohydrates in their leaves by photosynthesis and gaining mineral nutrients and water from the soil via their roots'.
  • KS4 Biology: links to the study of ecosystems; and KS4 Chemistry: links to the study of Earth and atmospheric science.
Design & Technology
  • KS3: links to 'designing and making' processes, in the context of agriculture and/or horticulture.
  • KS1: Pupils should be taught to 'use basic geographical vocabulary to refer to: ...key physical features, including soil'.
  • KS3: Pupils should be taught to 'understand, through the use of detailed place-based exemplars at a variety of scales, the key processes in physical geography relating to... weathering and soils'.
... and a bit of Maths This activity 'How much soil?' from the RHS School Gardens Campaign divides up an apple as a way to explain just how little of the Earth's surface is available to grow our food on.

How is soil under threat?

The following clips give an overview of why soil needs protecting: Deforestation: Tree- and plant-cover protects soil. Forest clearance on a large scale puts soil at risk of erosion and/or the leaching of nutrients from the soil by heavy rainfall or floods. Read more on the WWF website: Forest conversion and soil erosion. Sealing: The growth of cities puts much soil out of reach under tarmac and concrete. Read more on Building on soil. Climate change: Global warming can result in more extreme weather such as flooding or drought, leading to loss of soil by water or wind. Read more on Climate change soil impacts. 'Land grabs': Many organisations that campaign on behalf of poorer people are concerned that large corporations are forcibly taking land from people who depend upon it for their livelihood, especially in Africa. Read more: World Bank and aid donors accused of enabling land grabs (Guardian).

Sustainable solutions

Here are some practical examples, with teaching resources, of how soils are being protected, enhanced and even newly created, in poorer countries. Keyhole gardens are a good option for households in hot, dry countries. A round earth bed is built up around an active compost pile, enabling the garden to retain moisture and nutrients. Great for UK school gardens too! Read more on Send A Cow's Lessons from Africa website: Keyhole gardens and how to make one. Bag gardens are another option, particularly if a household doesn't have much space for a garden. Send a Cow has information on Bag gardens and how to make one, and Practical Action has information on Growing food at ultra-low cost without land. Floating gardens have been developed in Bangladesh, where climate change has resulted in farmers' land being flooded on a regular basis. Practical Action has a great Floating Garden Challenge for pupils aged 7 and above. Oxfam's resource Explore land grabs helps secondary pupils understand the causes and effects of land grabs, and take action to put an end to them.

Additional teaching resources

Soils Challenge Badge booklet - produced by the Youth & United Nations Global Alliance, this booklet is packed with activities to help young people learn about soil and how it is formed, the creatures that live in it, and just how important it is in our everyday lives. Teaching Kids About Soil - a few ideas for primary age from the Kids' Garden website. Our Good Earth - National Geographic photo-essay featuring soil,the threats to it and the people who farm on it. The British Society of Soil Science has a range of Resources for Teachers and Educators. Finally, this three-minute film clip introduces Bhaskar Save, an Indian known as 'the Gandhi of natural farming'. He talks about soil being 'a holy thing' and says farming should be 'non-violent'. What do your pupils think? What makes farming 'violent' or 'non-violent'? Which do they think is more sustainable and/or more suitable to feed the Earth's growing population?

The image at the top of the page is Soil in Hand by Lou Gold on and used under a Creative Commons Licence.