Soils of the Tundra

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SWBAT identify the elements of tundra soils.

Big Idea

The soils of the tundra are very different than the soils of the lower 48 states. Investigating the permafrost that exists underneath the solid layer of soil is intriguing.

Setting the Stage

5 minutes

Creating this lesson came about due to a requirement in my school district to teach about soils.  The program objectives have my students examining local soils and discovering what makes them unique. Discovering the organic and inorganic materials within that soil.  Rather than teaching each lesson in a sequence, I have chosen to take the lessons and alter them a tiny bit.  I have taken the same concepts and woven them into the lessons and units on the habitats of the world.  My students learn about the qualities not only of the soils in our local environment, but other environments on the globe.  This allows me to bring in a larger view of the world while also focusing on our own home.  

During the course of this unit, my students have discovered much about the diversity of the Polar Regions animals; this lesson focuses more on the land environment and its make up.  Which will in turn lead us to conversations about the diversity of plant life in the Polar Regions. 

This lesson takes two days to complete.  It is necessary to have a span of time for the ice to melt.  It is best if the lesson can be taught at the end of the school day.  This allows the ice without peat moss to melt over night.  While the ice that is covered with peat moss will melt, but remain cold and harden the soil that is underneath.  It creates a much more dramatic effect to demonstrate the permafrost. 

Materials Needed:

peat moss (I choose to use peat moss because it simulates nicely the covering of the soil the tundra has)


two trays per team

rulers (inch and centimeters)

ice cubes 

Engage - Day One

10 minutes

I ask the children to look at the screen and watch the video clip.  Reminding them to watch it quietly to begin with and to keep their ideas and comments to themselves.  I also remind them we will discuss it after we have watched it.  I draw their attention to the question that is projected next to the video clip and have them think about it as they are watching. 

(I have embedded the video clip into my Tundra Soils Power Point for ease of teaching, but have supplied it here for use of other teachers). 

When the clip is over, I ask the children to think about our playground after a really good rainstorm.  What does the ground feel like when they go outside to play? I let them think about this for about two minutes and draw their attention back to the screen and the video clip.  While they are thinking about it, I play the clip one more time.  Because it is short, it is easy to replay. I do this because some students really need the visual to stimulate the thinking process.  And a second viewing helps to encourage their thought processes.  

I ask the children to share their descriptions... I hear ideas that range from....."It is soggy." to "It's saturated." After sharing their personal observations, I move to the next slide which asks this question,,,,"Do you think the soil in the polar regions is like our soil?" 

This question bring a mixed bag of answers.  Some children are quick to share they believe it is just like our soil, while others disagree and explain that it cannot be because of the temperatures.  I am intrigued, but not surprised that the children have differing ideas.  Considering many of the students have not ever left our valley, they do not have much personal experience with different environments. Especially, the tundras or polar regions. 


Explore - Day One

15 minutes

I move quickly through Slides four through seven explaining what our objective during this lesson will be.  We are going to investigate and learn about the soils in the tundra.  Before we can begin, however, we must explore the concept of the tundra. 

I walk the children through the meaning of the word tundra, with visuals and descriptions to help them to understand what the word means.  Slide six offers an opportunity to practice describing it themselves from the picture that is offered.  This is important for the students to do.  It helps them to attach their own language and ideas to what they observe.  

Reaching Slide eight, now gives a visual cuing of where the tundras are in the world.  Of course, the children recognize instantly that the tundra is in the upper most part of the world. The part we have been learning about for several weeks now.  They become excited because they realize that this is going to important.  

Slide nine leads with a question for the children to ponder....."What do you believe the soil in the tundra is like?" Quickly moving to the next question....."What evidence leads you to believe this?" (Slide ten) I remind the students that scientists can not make statements about observations, beliefs, theories, or any type of statement without evidence behind them (SP8). 

I give the students a few minutes to articulate their observations with each other in their table teams. When the noise begins to die down, I move to Slide eleven, and allow the children to read it alone. I begin to hear movement and chattering and then....."OH! yeah! We get to make another simulation. I love these!"  

Slides 12 through 16 break down the steps the children will follow to create the simulation.  I call the team leaders to come and retrieve their materials and take them back to their teammates.  We work through setting up and gathering the beginning data. I also pass out the documentation page the children will use to gather their data.  The children are very used to these pages. They have become quite skilled at using them and now understand readily the importance of before and after data.  

As simulations are set up, the children work together to gather their measurements and record the information on their charts.  

After the children have completed all the steps to set up their simulations.  We gather together again and discuss the need to wait over night to see what results we will find the next day.  

Explore - Day Two

15 minutes

When we return to our simulation, the children are excited and somewhat surprised.  They can visibly see some dramatic changes in their set up.  They are anxious to get their rulers out and measure to see what the differences are.  However, I make them wait.  I really want to talk about what they see before they dive in.  I do this because I want to make sure they are all making the same observations....the peat moss is still mounded up and the ice cubes on the second tray are completely melted and disappeared.  

I begin by asking what the children notice? They articulate to me that the tray with peat moss is still solid and mounded up.  Some of the children even suspect there is ice inside the mound.  When I ask about the second tray, the children share that it has turned to mud and the mound is considerably smaller.  I remind them that this is just an observation.  They do not have actual data to prove this.....and I see heads bouncing up and down in agreement.  

After our conversation, the children get their rulers and document their data.  The comments are quiet. I am astounded at the concentration in the classroom during this time.  The children are so engrossed in their work, I watch in amazement.  It is obvious they are maturing and learning so much.  I do not have to work so hard to keep them on track anymore.  They are becoming very independent and I am excited!! 

When all the data has been measured and recorded.  I ask the children to make one more observation. This time, without any special tools.  This time, I want them to use their hands. I explain that I want them to put their fingers inside the soil and feel the temperature.  Reminding them they have an understanding of what temperature is.  They begin with the melted ice first and describe a cool, wet feeling.  When they move to the tray with peat moss, the descriptions are quite different.  And the excitement is mounting!

Comments are crazy...."This is cold!!"  "It is hard."  "Where is the ice?" "How come the ice is gone, but it is really cold?"  



10 minutes

Slide 17 is up and shows a picture of the soil layers in our region.  I love this diagram because it is so clear to the children.  It also shows the layers and the children become excited when they realize there are layers to soil, just as there were layers in the alpine forest.  They have some background in this and instantly creates a connection for them.

Slide 18 then asks...."What do you believe keeps the soil warm in the tundra?" Without hesitation, I hear....."peat moss."  To which I must clear up what could quickly become a misconception..... I explain that "yes, peat moss is part of it.  However, peat moss doesn't completely cover the soils of the tundra.  It is a part of it, but we used the peat to 'simulate' the soil surface of the tundra." 

I remind them that a simulation is way to recreate a closeness to the situation, not the exact replication of it.  I then move to Slide 19, which explains further that is it called Permafrost. Which is also a hyperlink that allows us to explore it further.  

We click on the link and read a bit more about the permafrost and why it works as it does.  This is exciting and the children enjoy the new information to add to their work. 



5 minutes

This lesson brought in quite a bit of new information that was exciting.  I want to be sure the children can tie it back to the original question about soil.  So I bring the last slide up....

The question is...."Would permafrost be good for our valley? Why or Why not?"  

Without a moment of hesitation, the children said "NO!"  When I prompt them further, they explain that we grow apples, if our soil becomes too cold and the permafrost keeps the soil cold, we can't grow our fruit.

I was satisfied that they had been able to make that connection.