Earth Science / Geology / Soil Science

Mud Season

For many folks around the country, it is spring, which means mud season. If you have young children in your home you are are probably dreading the extra cleaning that comes with the season. Coping with muddy shoes, pant hems, and fingers may be in your future. You may even find mud in ears and belly buttons.


If you are surrounded by mud, then there is melting snow nearby, or it has rained recently. For those of you in drought-stricken areas of the country, this may be dust and dirt season.


Are you the one who sweeps, mops, or vacuums in your household? Then mud and dirt are the banes of your existence. But surely that dirt is not all bad. Perhaps there are instances when your child shows awareness of mud, dirt or soil, and if so, here are some ideas for heightening that interest and encouraging that burgeoning geologist.


Some children love to dig in the dirt with their hands. Others would rather use a tool such as a spade, small shovel, or an old spoon. Or your child may prefer just to look at the dirt/soil/mud that you helped to collect and place in a jar. Which type is your child? The child who likes to look and not touch, may show interest but also may need a little more awareness and assistance on your part to explore this topic.


Before we get started, it is worth noting some differences between the terms dirt and soil. No need to overly stress the difference when talking with your child, but you may have occasions to make the distinction.


Soil develops in place. It also contains air, water, minerals (from rocks), organic matter (e.g., decomposing plant material), and a variety of organisms (e.g., worms, microbes, moles).


Dirt tends to be transported from somewhere else or is displaced soil. Dirt and mud tend to be considered as problems or as needing to be cleaned away. Dirt started out as soil but lost some of its value. Unlike dirt, soil is essential to life and our ecosystems. Ninety-five percent of our food grows in dire; it filters our water and is necessary for storing carbon.


For a quick overview of the Guiding Curiosity approach, please read the “What is Guiding Curiosity” pages for useful hints on engaging your child in critical inquiry.





Do any of the following questions sound familiar?  Next time you hear a question of this type, follow-up and help guide your child to finding the answers.


What is soil, or what is it made of?

Where does it come from or how is it made?

Are there different kinds of dirt/soil/mud?

Are some soils better than others for growing things?

Does anything live in the soil?





Slow down, don’t take that dirt for granted. Encourage a closer look.  You and your child may be surprised by what you find.


Take a sample of soil from somewhere, such as your backyard, the park, a garden, or along the side of the road. A sample can be as little as a half a cup. If you have small empty jars, such as spice jars, these would be ideal for storing samples. If you can take larger samples, using, for example, a shovel that can dig a hole and then carefully clean or shave off one side, you may be able to detect layers.




Remember that topsoil (loam) may look distinct from the subsoil underneath. Potting soil will do, but it is pretty uniform and may not provide enough that is of interest to examine to keep your child invested in the investigation. Eventually, the more samples you have, the more interesting it will be to observe and explore, but start with one sample to gauge interest. Labeling samples is a good idea. Ask your child what information the label should contain, but a discussion may help her see the value of where the sample came from and the date.


Next, look, smell and feel a sample. What can he see with her eyes versus with a magnifying glass (think grass, insects, pebbles of varying shapes and colors, pieces of bark or other plant matter such as seeds or twigs)?


Have some tweezers handy as it may make it easier to separate elements in the dirt. Unfortunately, you may find bits of garbage in a sample. If so, this can be a starting point for another discussion about disposing of our trash.





Help to find labels for aspects of the sample that are identified. Descriptive language may include loamy (a mixture of sand, silt with a little clay), sandy, rocky, or clay.

Find other descriptive names for what the sample feels (e.g., crumbly or sticky) or smells like.

Smell dirt before and after adding a sprinkling of water.




Collecting samples of dirt to compare is only the beginning of the fun.


Having multiple samples will be helpful for this exercise. Sort soils or samples of sands according to various criteria, such as color, texture, or along dimensions such as homogeneous (all one color and type, such as potting soil) to a sample with lots of elements in it.


Compare animals that live above ground or underground. Some animals may live above ground but have underground burrows (ground hogs), while other live entirely underground (moles).





Keep measuring devices (rulers, scales) out and handy.  Over time, measurement and collecting information will become second nature.


If you have access to or can dig a deep enough hole and can detect different layers of soil, measure the thickness of the layers. Alternatively, if you have a road cut nearby on a highway, stream beds, or a rock face with layers evident, measure the height of each or at least those that can be reached. What are the differences between the layers (A. the top layer forms from what falls down or decomposing organic matter like leaves and plant parts, B or the second layer is decomposing material or substrate, and C or the bottom is bedrock)?




Weigh those samples collected. You will need to make sure that there are approximately the same amounts to be weighed. If they are in similar jars, then the weight of the jar can either be included or the weight of the empty jar subtracted. Is there a difference in weight? If so, look closely to determine why one would be heavier.


Alternatively, if you have access to a balance scale, pour a tablespoon out and determine how much it weighs. Weigh a tablespoon of two different samples on a balance scale, or samples of similar or different types. Do they weigh the same? If not, what would help to explain the difference?



In the case of dirt, making mud or making a mess may be the same as an experiment.  This is playful learning at its best.


Take a sample of soil with some variations in it. Fill a jar about half way with the sample and then fill the remaining half with water. What does it look like? Now shake it up. What is happening? Allow the jar to sit for a couple of more minutes and invite another observation. What happened? (If you have a sample with a variety of elements, they should separate out. Some elements, such as chips of wood or pieces of leaves, may float. The heavier elements should settle on the bottom of the jar first, followed by finer pieces or silt.) Discuss possible names for these layers if they are evident and the elements identifiable. Another option is to put dirt into a sieve and shake the sieve over a piece of paper. What passes through and lands on the paper versus remains in the sieve. The drier the sample the easier this will be.


This next experiment overlaps with learning about plants, or specifically seeds. Have your child collect different soil types in small flowerpots (or a muffin tin, empty yogurt cups, or egg carton). Labeling would be a good exercise here, but for younger children that process can take too long and be distracting. For this experiment adding some potting soil to one pot would be appropriate, locally collected soil to another, and perhaps sand or gravel to a third. Next, plant a few seeds in each pot by making a slight depression adding the seeds and covering them. Now water and place in a sunny spot. Make sure to water regularly, keeping the soils moist. Try and water each example in the same way. Keep an eye on the pots. When and if the seed sprout, which soil helped them grow?




Test how well soil holds water. Find some small paper cups and make very small holes in the bottom. A needle can be used for this purpose. Next fill as many as you can with different types of soils, including potting, sandy soil and clay. Pack the soil samples down. Holding the cup over the sink, pour about a quarter of a cup of water onto the soil. Count the number seconds it takes for the water to begin to drip out of the holes on the bottom of the cup. You could also use a stopwatch, but counting approximate seconds is probably sufficient. Repeat for the remaining soil samples. Count and record the number of “seconds” for the water to make it through each sample. Which soil holds the water the best?


Make your own fossils. Mix soil and water. The more clay in the soil the better (or only use clay). Make a mud pie, then slice it in half. Place a bone, leaf, or another object on one-half of the mud pie, and put the second half on top sealing the edges. Let the mud pie dry. If necessary, you can place the mud pie in an oven to speed up the drying process. Allow your child to open or split the mud pie along the original cut, observing the fossil that was created.




If you have access to a stream, pond, or river, take a water sample. This activity will need to be carefully supervised, and warnings about falling in and the consequences should be included. For our study of dirt, a muddy river or pond stirred up with a stick will be best. Take the sample home and let it sit. What happens? Observe the sediment as it settles out. If you collected only a small amount of water, you could also let it evaporate, making it easier to observe the settled sediment.


Make a worm house. Collect enough soil to fill a narrow jar. If the jar is too fat, the worms will build their burrows in the middle of the jar, and they will not be easily observed. A narrow jar will force the worms closer to the glass and into view. The soil should be damp but not too wet. Dig for worms and place them and bits of food (leaves, grass). You can also buy bait worms. You do not need to put a top on the jar, but if you do, make some holes in the top so the worms can breathe.




Initially, wrap it in dark construction paper. Tape or secure with rubber bands the paper around the jar. The worms will only go to work in the dark, and this speeds up their willingness to build those burrows. Wait about 24 hours and remove the paper. What can you see? Did they eat anything?


It is important to keep the soil moist and not allow it to dry out. Release the worms into a safe place, such as a garden or flower bed, after a day or two.


Build a snail house. Follow instructions for the worm house, but the tall narrow jar should be replaced by a wider container. You will also need to put a top on the container, as these mollusks will crawl out. Again make sure there are holes in the top so they can breathe. Snails eat plant material, so add some green leaves to the jar.





Talk with someone who gardens or grows vegetables. Ask them what soils they prefer, or how they choose where to grow different plants and why.


While walking or driving, make a game out of looking for areas where the rain has washed away soil, or where there is erosion. Explore how plants can keep the soil in place.




Discuss the uses of soil. Planting and growing things may be obvious, but clay is an essential ingredient in construction (bricks are made from clay), gravel is used in landscape design and covering driveways, sand is in concrete. Though not typical, look up how a sod house is constructed.




We’ll do another activity on rocks, but you can discuss how rocks break down to form soils and how plants, roots or the weather can help in this process. If your child takes an interest in the topic of soil you can also explore how dirt under pressure or heat forms rocks.


Build a mud/sand castle!


Look up a recipe for dirt pudding and make a treat. Add some gummy bugs or worms.


How does soil influence the nature of the foods people eat? Now we can find all kinds of vegetables at the supermarket, but ancient desert dwellers had diets that were distinct from other ancient peoples living in forests or on the plains.




Explore clays used by a potter or ceramicist. Perhaps you have some ceramics in your household. Take a look at the bottom if not covered by the glaze. What does it look like? Explore pots or other ceramic containers that are significant in a historical or archeological sense. What do those pots tell us about ancient peoples, how they lived, what they grew or ate? Learning to work with clay and make pots was critical for storing liquids and foods, shaping early civilizations in meaningful ways.








Organic matter









Photos Courtesy of Shutterstock

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