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Learning from the Ground Up: Exploring Soil and Cultivating Scientific Inquiry with AES First Graders

Posted in Kids' Corner

It doesn’t take long for first graders at Aspen Elementary School (AES) to get their hands dirty in ACES Ed class. After spending their kindergarten year getting to know local animals, first graders re-enter ACES in-school environmental science education program eager to explore the natural world as backyard ecologists. And what better way to cultivate an early appreciation of the environment than by exploring and learning about soil – one of earth’s most essential building blocks. 

This unit’s lessons begin with the story of soil: how it’s made and where it comes from. Then, our first graders get to explore local soil samples for themselves. Using sieves and magnifying glasses to remove rocks, gravel, and pebbles, students isolate the humus, a soft, organic substance made from decayed plant and animal matter. Through this hands-on experience first graders observe and learn that humus is a key soil ingredient that provides nutrients to the soil and enables water retention. 

The goal of this lesson is to teach students to not only identify what humus looks and feels like, but also to recognize how it relates to the larger ecosystem. As ACES Educators, we ask students to distinguish between different soil components based on their size, shape, and texture, as well as to visualize how each piece was formed. For example, asking, “what happened to create that tiny pebble?” encourages students to think locally, but also to understand the larger forces at work – like erosion, weathering, and glaciation – that can transform huge boulders into tiny grains of sand. This unit covers the 1st grade earth science standard, which explores the concept that earth’s materials can be compared and classified based on their properties. In addition, students use tools to observe earth’s materials, another key component of 1st grade earth science.

Exploring soil can offer so much to our young learners. Whether it’s comparing different rock sizes, or experiencing how soft and light humus feels between our fingers, this type of hands-on, experiential interaction with the natural world cultivates a generation of children who are excited to explore, inquire, and investigate.

As it turns out, getting your hands dirty is a great place to start. 

~ Bowman Leigh, ACES Educator