"What's the difference between dirt and soil?" That question stumps many children at first, but my veteran gardeners know the difference: "Dirt is what's behind your ears. Soil is what we plant in." Soil is a living thing. It's a community. Dirt is a liability. Soil is the greatest asset in the world; it provides a medium to grow.
Expect your new gardeners to be surprised to learn that soil is a living, breathing material. Challenge their assumption that it's "just dirt" by having them investigate healthy soil using all their senses. Using an inexpensive handheld magnifying glass, they can get a close-up look at soil samples. Teach them to roll a pinch of soil between thumb and fingers to see if it forms a ball—a way to check for clay content. What do they notice when they close their eyes and smell a handful of soil? Their observations lead naturally to descriptive writing activities.
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In outdoor gardens and container gardens, soil is what holds plant roots in place and delivers nutrients and water essential for healthy plant growth. Soil contains millions of living microorganisms; it is an ecosystem unto itself.
Academic language will blossom along with scientific understanding as students learn to identify organic and inorganic materials. Encourage questions about what they can do to improve soil quality. Earthworms, anyone? Good questions open the door to scientific investigations along with profound conversations about how we can improve our own environment.
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