Life Lab

Life Lab cultivates children's love of learning, healthy food, and nature through garden-based education.

Soil Shake from

Soil SHake

Discover the makeup of a soil you collect, by shaking it in a jar with water and seeing how the layers of soil particles settle out. Age 5+; 10 minutes, then 24 hours wait, then 10-15 minutes.

Is the soil near your home a clay-heavy soil? Or a sandy soil? Or a balanced loam, coveted by any gardener? Soil is made up of rock particles of different sizes. The smallest particles are clay, the middle size silt, and the largest particles are sand. The proportion of each of these categories of particles affects how your soil feels, looks, acts when it’s wet, and how well plants grow in it. For example, soil with a high proportion of clay is hard to dig, and soil with a high proportion of sand tends to dry out quickly. The most ideal garden soil, loam, has about 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay. Knowing the makeup of your soil can help you figure out how to make it better (for example, adding plentiful compost improves either sandy or clay soil!). 

For this activity, you’ll need a tall jar (such as a quart mason jar, a pickle jar, or even a clear water bottle), a trowel, and a funnel (or piece of paper rolled into a funnel shape) if your jar has a narrow mouth. A plastic jar or water bottle may be preferable if you are working with young children, since they will be shaking the jar and perhaps dropping it! Help the kids fill the jar ⅔ with water. Then bring the jar, trowel, and funnel if needed to the nearest place with exposed soil where you can take a sample. Let the kids take turns scooping soil and adding it to the jar until it is nearly full. Cap the jar and let the kids take turns shaking it until they are satisfied that it is completely shaken up (it won’t hurt to shake it extra, luckily!). Then find a place to set the jar where everyone can see it and it can stay undisturbed for 24 hours. Ask the kids what they notice about what’s in the jar. What does it look like? What do they see happening? (The largest particles will settle out right away, but the smallest may take hours). Come back 24 hours later to see the soil completely layered in the jar. The layers may be different colors or all the same color; you’ll know the difference between the layers by the size of the particles you see. The bottom layer with a grainy appearance is the sand; the middle layer is silt; and the top layer of fine particles is clay. You may see organic matter (such as pieces of leaves) layered on top of that, or floating. You could have the kids draw the layers, and/or compare them to a chart like this.

If desired, you could dig further into how to improve your particular type of soil with an internet search; and your kids could be a part of putting your plan into action.

Also, if your kids are interested, they could collect another soil sample from a different setting, make another soil “shake” and compare the results.

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