Learning Landscapes: Building A Balanced Life System

Foundation of a Learning Landscape

There is a natural symbiotic relationship between the complex life system that comprises healthy soil and all the other elements thriving in that ecosystem. What is the health of the “soil” in your child’s learning landscape?

Ready for a thought-provoking science question? What is the largest, most diverse, and most complex life system (that we know of) in the universe?

When thinking about growing plants in our landscapes, we often think about the need for food, water, energy, and maybe protection from harsh elements or scavengers. However, did you realize you don’t actually “feed” plants organically? You feed the soil and the microorganisms feed the plants. There is a natural symbiotic relationship between the complex life system that comprises healthy soil and all the other elements thriving in that ecosystem.

Our children’s learning landscapes need to also be built on a foundation of a healthy, diverse, yet balanced life system. For my family, the framework to help us do this is found in integrating permaculture with community-based education to design our learning landscape holistically. Permaculture is an ethical system of design that integrates our scientific understanding of the patterns of nature, physics, and biology to design a unified, healthy ecosystem.

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What is the health of the “soil” in your child’s learning landscape?

Life (and our health) in all areas is dependent on the health of the “soil” that is the foundation. Yet, soil is probably the most under appreciated fundamental element from which all of our landscapes evolve. It provides the foundation from which all life is cultivated in any landscape – the garden, forest, or even our learning landscape. You probably guessed it. Soil is the largest, most diverse, and most complex life system that we know of in the universe. 

Healthy soil makes for healthy people, plants, animals, and environment. It gives us clean water and air, food, medicine, energy, raw materials, and so much more. Not all soil is equal and it takes loving care and an understanding of the pattern relationships between the microscopic elements in the soils to build healthy soil. There is a dynamic web of billions of organisms, which break down organic matter and renews the soil to keep it resilient and fertile.

We can grow plants with just the main three nutrients that people think of – nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium (NPK) – but to build healthy soil and grow nutrient dense foods the soil needs to have a balance of minor elements, trace elements, and microorganisms. In learning landscapes, we need healthy “soil” to establish the foundation on which everything else grows. What is the foundation for your child’s learning landscape? There is a good chance neither you, nor the child, has thought about this. If that is the case, this probably means the child’s learning landscape is founded on dirt, not soil. What is the difference?

“Dirt is the four-letter D word in soil science or soil biology, anything having to do with real soil. Dirt is what accumulates on your hands, your clothes, and your shoes, so when you are walking around outside on your soil and it gets on your body and you walk into your house, now you have dirt. It was soil out there and now is dirt in here. What happened between outside and inside? You didn’t change any of the inorganic nutrients. You didn’t change the organic matter. You might have changed the water content a little bit… but when you bring that soil into the house what has died is the biology. So the difference between dirt and soil is just the lack of set of proper microorganisms to grow what you want to grow.” – Dr. Elaine Ingham, world-renowned soil biologist who pioneered many of the currently used biological soil amendment techniques and pioneered the testing of soil microbial life as an indicator of soil and plant health.

The truth about learning, at least meaningful learning that is likely to last a lifetime is that it takes place in a complex, interdependent system – a system involving experiences, environments, perceptions (and misconceptions), beliefs and values, and all the elements, living and nonliving, around us in the world. One of the most important “microorganisms” that add life to the soil of our children’s learning landscape is the diversity of community.

So, did you know that May 3, 2015 is International Permaculture Day? This year the focus is on supporting our soil. Why not take this metaphorical discussion about the “soil” in our learning landscape and think about fun experiential educational opportunities for the physical landscape to drop in your child’s path on Sunday, May 3rd. Here are some ideas to get you, your family, and even your community started:

  • Host a neighborhood party, share a copy of the plans for your garden, and invite your neighbors to sign-up for a fruit, veggie, or herb exchange later in the year… don’t have one or your neighbors don’t? Make a no till front yard neighborhood garden modeled after the Food is Free project.
  • Using a toothpick as a tool, extract as many chocolate chips from a chocolate chip cookie as you can. How many could you get out? Now, put the cookie back together without the chocolate chips you took out. Try to make it look nice on the top. Hmm, if the chocolate chips are resources under the ground and the cookie dough is the earth with the top part being the top soil we see, what do you think of your new Earth? What are you feeling? What can you do? Can you just put the chocolate chips back? What questions does this raise for you?
  • Arrange for a “permablitze,” which is an informal gathering involving a day on which a group of at least two people come together to achieve the following: 1) create or add to edible gardens, 2) share skills related to permaculture and sustainable living, 3) build community, and 4) have fun.
  • Simply play outside, dig down, and incorporate soil in your play. Draw in it. Stomp in it. Add water to it. Make mud pies. Do whatever else strikes you and your child’s fancy! Where does your child take it and what questions do they have as a result?
  • Invite family and friends over for a “soil barter blanket party” where all the things exchanged have to do with supporting healthy soil. A barter blanket is a group activity where people gather around a blanket to barter new and used items. In this case the barter blanket would be theme-based, so items bartered might include gardening tools, books about building soil, or even promises to help someone make a new raised garden bed in the future. This activity is not uncommon at permaculture workshops.
  • Compare and contrast how at least three different cultures around today or anytime throughout history use and interact with the soil.
  • Make your own model of how much soil is available for people to use to grow food. Collect 1 cup of soil to represent all the soil on the Earth. Take out ¾ cup, put it in a container, and cover it with water. This represents the amount of our planet that is covered by oceans, lakes, and rivers. Of the remaining ¼ cup, take away ½. This represents the deserts, extremely cold North and South Pole regions, and high mountainous regions where it can be very difficult to grow things. How much is left? What is the fraction or percentage left? Is all that is left usable by people? Why or why not? Of the soil remaining, take away 1/10, which represents the amount of land that people occupy with houses, buildings, cities, and other living structures like transportation infrastructure. How much is left? What is the proportion left? Fraction? Percentage? Is all this usable by people? Extension: Should there be more that we extract for other reasons (e.g. erosion, big agriculture plowing techniques, pesticides/herbicides, etc.)? If so, why and how much? If not, why?
  • Start composting and/or vermicomposting. It’s never too early or late in the growing season to start!
  • Have fun and do some dramatic play. What does soil sound like? This may sound like a silly question, but what would the sounds of the animals and organisms living in soil hear? Pick an animal or organism and find out about how it interacts with soil. Re-create this experience. For example, if you have a dirt pile try burrowing a hole and if not re-create this experience with blankets piled on top of the child. How do things sound when you are in the hole? Are noises outside loud or muffled? How does that change the further underground you go (or the more blankets are put on top). What about animals that eat the soil? What does that sound like? Seriously, lick your finger and take a taste. Can you hear the gritty sand particles crunching between your teeth? Do worms have teeth? How does this compare to what you thought you experienced when you just felt the soil in your hands.
  • Dig out real tools that you have, make, and/or go to a local donations store and look for a range of tools that are used to interact with soil. These could be hand tools or mechanical (e.g. toy dump truck). Play around with them. Try using them. What are they good for? What are the not good for?
  • Check out some online resources for kids that just might get them diggin’ soil (ha, ha!): Discovery Education: Dirt on Soil, EcoKids Land Use Online “Game” (choose your own story), SoilTris Survivor Online Videogame (like Tetris), Where in the Soil Are You?, Soil Layers Online “Game” (multiple choice match), NPK Online Videogame to Grow Corn (not my personal favorite because most corn is a genetically modified organism (GMO) here in the US, but popcorn is not, not, not a GMO!)
  • Explore the diversity of elements in soil using your senses. Compare and contrast the three parts of soils separately and then categorize your own soil. Use the questions below to help guide inquiry, if needed:
  1. When you touch the soil sample, does it feel gritty? Yes: There is some sand in this soil. Go to question 2. No: There must be finer particles in this soil. Perhaps there is a lot of silt or clay. Go to question 2.
  2. Can you form a sphere shape, like a ball, without it crumbling apart? Yes: Hmm, there might be some clay or silt in this soil. Go to question 3. No: There isn’t much clay or silt, so it must be mostly sand. Move to question 4.
  3. Can you roll it into the shape of a sausage? Yes: It probably has a good mix of clay that helps it all stick together. Go to question 5. No: There isn’t much clay in this soil. It may have a good amount of silt though. Go to question 4.
  4. Do your hands get a little stained like the color of the soil? Yes: It sounds there might be some loam, silt, or clay. If you answered “No” for question 2, you might want to go back and try that questions again.  No: It is likely sandy soil. Sand particles are bigger and aren’t as likely to stick to and discolor your hands.
  5. Can you curve the sausage-shaped soil into a circle without it crumbling apart? Yes: There is a good amount of clay in this soil. Go to question 6. No: It’s mostly loam with minimal clay.
  6. Get the soil sample damp. Does it feel sticky? Yes: That indicates clay. No: That means you probably feel mostly silt or loam.

When doing these or any other soil-related experiential learning activities, email a picture. I bet this community would love to hear how our children celebrate. Until next time, happy Earth Day, Pay It Forward Day, and last but not least International Permaculture Day. Every mindful choice makes a difference. Be the solution in your physical and learning landscapes and you make a positive impact in the life system of the world. Cultivate healthy, regenerative, and living the soil.

[Photo credit: (cc) Yasmeen]


Jen MendezJen Mendez

Jen is a wife, mother of two joyous children, experiential education mentor, and founder of PERMIE KIDs. She has a M. Ed. in International Education and has worked with children in the U.S. and overseas from early childhood through the primary years, as well as parent-educators. She integrates an ethical, design science methodology with her love for education to help others learn to design a customized education with their children that honors themselves, others, and the earth.

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