Looking at food webs and food chains, you’ll notice that they all start with the sun. Pretty basic science, so there is nothing groundbreaking about that. Second on the diagram is the producer, a plant or plant-like organism such as photo plankton. But wait, we’ve missed something. Something that the land-based food chain couldn’t do without. Something which is literally ground breaking. Soil. One of the most important substances we have, which humanity and the health of the planet depend on.
Land degradation caused by urbanisation, mining, farming and ranching impacts soil health leading to soil erosion and then desertification. 75% of the Earth’s land area has already been degraded, and it could be 90% by 2050 (European Commission World Atlas of Desertification via National Geographic).
Yet, many of us take soil for granted. Maybe because it seems as commonplace as the air we breathe. However, being so important (life-hangs-in-the-balance kind of important), it doesn’t get much time. It doesn’t exactly sound that exciting, either. So how can we be more excited about soil and give it the attention it deserves? Can we insist on its vitalness without causing anxiety? Can a book about soil even be that good?
I’ll be honest, I asked myself this when starting the research. There’s the phrase ’as clear as mud’. But, it’s clear that mud, and soil, are more exciting than I gave them credit for.
Soil should be mentioned in areas of learning such as plants, living things, and rocks/geology. However, it’s also important that lessons on climate change and sustainability include it too. We teach children what soil is for, but perhaps not how important it actually is. There are books available for all age groups to learn about soil, and useful for the areas of learning above. Okay. There isn’t that many to choose from, but they are out there. I’ve picked two of them which will be of great use.
Out of all the mini-beasts (by the way, I think that term is the most effective and exciting phrase for early-year classrooms. I challenge anyone to come up with a better phrase for an area of learning), worms could be the best. They fascinate children. So much so, that they often put them in their mouths or come up and show you while you’re on playground duty. Not many children are scared of worms – they are simply curious. This doesn’t include having someone chase you with one on the end of a stick. No one wants that, especially said worm.
So they lend themselves to education really well. Plus, they’re incredibly important to soil health. I urge you to visit the Soil Association website here…
Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss is a ‘love letter’ to these hidden heroes. And the message of their importance is gentle yet given prominence. It starts with worm mum’s advice to remember “That the earth gives us everything we need.” And “When we dig tunnels, we help to take care of the earth.” – “We help the Earth breathe!” The dual use of the word earth/Earth works well, and the eagle-eyed will love to talk about it.
In the final lines of the book, our diary writer admits, “It’s not always easy being a worm.” due to their size and people sometimes forgetting they’re there. But, our little friend tells us that the “earth never forgets” that they are there. The funny and heartwarming diary is the parenthesis to an important point pitched perfectly to its intended audience. There are no ‘what ifs?’ and no consequences, just positivity.
When our worm-loving, earth-aware readers are older, there’s Under Your Feet: Soil, Sand, And Everything Underground from DK and the Royal Horticultural Society. The first page goes straight into explaining why soil is so important. Spoiler alert – it’s not just to grow things in. But once we know why we need it, and that it’s important, does anything else matter?
Sometimes, in education, I get the sense that we go from the question: e.g. why is soil important? To answer: because of xyz, too easily. Are learners missing out on details? I find it is the detail which is the most fascinating. What exactly is soil made up of? There’s a diagram in the book – (the writers missed a trick not calling a mud pie chart) – that explains that soil is 20-30% water, 20-30% air, and only 5% organic matter – but 45% minerals.
To be honest, before coming to the correct page in the book, I would have struggled to define a mineral properly. It’s one of those words everyone assumes everyone knows the meaning of. Maybe a bit like the phrase “releases nutrients into the soil”. I know plants need nutrients to complete their life cycle, but I might draw a blank naming any. In this book, minerals are referred to as a “solid that is found naturally and made of crystals.” including sand, silt, and clay. Elements found in the ground are also called minerals, some of which are nutrients for plants – phosphorus, potassium etc. It takes a more detailed approach to take that leap in learning to the next stage. And it’s the detail which makes children feel like learners.
I’d be here forever if I listed everything in this book. Worms get a mention, as do lots of other critters and mini-beasts. Also, the mini-mini-beasts that are microbes. But it’s the page on desertification that I felt had the biggest impact on me as a reader. The drama of the page-turn from this to the Moon and then Mars felt chilling. Is this where we are heading? This was my interpretation, but is it a nod to the realities of the future without being too explicit? Make of it what you will, but a lot of thought goes into a book’s design. The vision of colonizing Mars and growing food can be seen as humanity progressing, or as an act of desperation. One last try to put things right.
I can’t believe I’ve written a thousand words about two books. This speaks highly of the books mentioned and of the subject matter. There’s no doubt that there’s a lot to learn about soil, a lot to celebrate and a lot to worry about. But, handled in the right way, learning about soil doesn’t always have to get muddy.
You might be interested in more books about the subterranean world selected from our collections. You can find all of these books and more at bestbooksforschools.com, the online bookshop of Just Imagine
Roy has reminded us about the importance of safeguarding and improving the quality of our soil.
Meanwhile, eco-journalist, Sarah Roberts, talked to Nikki Gamble about keeping carbon locked safely underground. You can hear Sarah discussing this issue and her latest eco-conscious picturebook, Somebody Woke Wilson. Listen here