Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science
Earth’s Solid Membrane: Soil Children’s Ideas About Soil
Children’s Ideas About Soil
Below are common ideas children in grades K-6 have about this topic, compiled from research on children’s ideas about science (see the Session 1 Children’s Ideas Bibliography).
Consider what evidence might refute this idea, and why a child would be likely to believe this? Once you’ve entered all your answers you can click “printable page” at the bottom of this form to be taken to a page with all your answers formatted for printing. You can also click “see possible response” for any question to see one possible response from the series content advisors.
1. Soil is ‘just dirt’ or ‘any stuff’ in the ground.
Soil is a complex combination of organic and inorganic materials, as well as air and water; it forms from the interaction of environmental factors.Children often interchange the words “soil” and “dirt” and use them as synonyms.
2. Soil is unchanging.
Soil is dynamic. It continuously undergoes changes caused by biological, chemical and physical processes. Soil can be repeatedly eroded, polluted, or rejuvenated. Children’s everyday experiences with soil, which are brief in terms of soil development, confirm their idea that soils do not visibly change.
3. Some children think that soil is quite young and has been formed in a few years; others think that soil is as old as the Earth.
With few exceptions, soils take hundreds to thousands of years to form.. Children do not generally understand that soils have different ages. Their ability to perceive time and the passage of time is limited. Also, many children think soil comes from plants, which contributes to the common misconception that soil is “just a few years” old. Some children perceive soil as an inseparable part of the Earth, formed when the Earth was formed.
4. Soil is brown and homogeneous. Twigs, leaf mold, and small stones are found in soil, and not an integral part of it.
There are many types of soils, each with differences in appearance and composition. Soil color ranges from yellows, browns, and reds to grays and blacks. Soil is a mixture of many diverse components, including live and decaying plants and animals and rocks at varying stages of weathering. Children’s experiences with soil — often garden soil — foster the idea that it is a single substance. Most children assume that all soil is the same as the soil with which they are familiar.
5. Soil does not contain air.
25% of soil is comprised of air. Air, as well as water, fills the spaces between soil particles, and is an integral part of soil that performs important functions. Air is gaseous and transparent, and its presence as a component within a solid, visible substance is not readily comprehended by children.
6. Many children think that they are living on land that is mostly soil, within which can be found masses of rock.
Childhood experiences may indicate that soil is the predominant material into which rocks are scattered. Under the relatively thin layer of soil, however, lies a solid unweathered layer of rock called bedrock.
7. Soil depth is anywhere from six inches to ten miles.
Soil depths vary from a few inches to over fifty feet. Children’s common experiences with soils, such as planting a garden or playing with mud, are limited to the soil surface. It is challenging for children to know about or visualize what they haven’t seen.
- Happs, J. “Some Aspects of Student Understandings of Soil.” Australian Science Teachers Journal 28, no. 3(1982): 25 – 31.
- Happs, J. “Soil Genesis and Development: Views Held by New Zealand Students.”
Journal of Geography 83, no. 4 (1984): 177 – 180.
- Driver, R., et al. “Materials and Their Properties.” Leeds National Curriculum Support Project, Part 3, Leeds City Council and the University of Leeds, U.K. (1992).
- Russell, T., Bell, D., Longden, K. and McGuigan, L. Rocks, Soil, and Weather: Primary SPACE Project Research Report. Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press, 1993.
Session 1 Earth’s Solid Membrane: Soil
How does soil appear on a newly born, barren volcanic island? In this session, participants explore how soil is formed, its role in certain Earth processes, its composition and structure, and its place in the structure of the Earth.
Session 2 Every Rock Tells A Story
How can we use rocks to understand events in the Earth's past? In this session, participants explore the processes that form sedimentary rocks, learn how fossils are preserved, and are introduced to the theory of plate tectonics.
Session 3 Journey to the Earth’s Interior
How do we know what the interior of the Earth is like if we've never been there? In this session, participants examine the internal structure of the Earth and learn how it is possible for entire continents to move across its surface.
Session 4 The Engine That Drives the Earth
What drives the movement of tectonic plates? In this session, participants learn how plates interact at plate margins, how volcanoes work, and the story of Hawaii's formation.
Session 5 When Continents Collide
How is it possible that marine fossils are found on Mount Everest, the world's highest continental mountain? In this session, participants learn what happens when continents collide and how this process shapes the surface of the Earth.
Session 6 Restless Landscapes
If almost all mountains are formed the same way, why do they look so different? In this session, participants learn about the forces continually at work on the surface of the Earth that sculpt the ever-changing landscape.
Session 7 Our Nearest Neighbor: The Moon
Why is the Moon, our nearest neighbor in the solar system, so different from the Earth? In this session, participants explore the complex connections between the Earth and Moon, the origin of the Moon, and the roles played by gravity and collisions in the Earth-Moon system.
Session 8 Order out of Chaos: Our Solar System
Why do all the planets orbit the Sun in the same direction and why are the planets closest to the Sun so different from the gas giants farther out? In this session, participants gain a better understanding of the nature of the solar system by examining its formation.