Erosion with Clay, 6th Grade

As a challenge, I taught two 6th Grade science classes through art for 4 periods over a number of weeks so to not interfere with their normal routines. In their science course the students had just started a unit on water. In this lesson, we looked at tributaries and discussed the impact of erosion and runoff. To give them a physical experiment and a manipulative example, we placed clay slabs in slanted paint trays and in groups of two, they students used clay tools to carve their own tributaries. The students shaped their land as they saw fit and added “foliage” with pipe cleaners. Some added rocks to physically block the paths and some added the rocks to the edge to mark erosion levels. We placed one color sand on the “land” and at the top of the slope. Then we ran a cup full of water and vinegar to erode the clay body. Students would carefully pour the vinegar water back in the cup, add a new color of sand, and then repeat the process. With each run, the students wrote down observations. Everyone presented their findings and projects at the end.

5 thoughts on “Erosion with Clay, 6th Grade

  1. I am an Elementary Education major and am in a class that we are to integrate art into our lessons. Because my concentration is science I’m writing a lesson on erosion. I was wondering if I could get more details about your materials you used so I can use it in the lesson I’m writing.

    • Since I teach art, I have a stock of earth clay (Cone 05, but that doesn’t matter for your purposes). What is important is earth clay dries, but it must be fired in the kiln to become ceramic. Dried earth clay can be reconstituted. It’s also important that I used earth clay, because vinegar breaks it down. So, in a house paint roller tray, I put a 1.5″ think slab of clay for groups to carve, stamp, and build walls, tunnels, or other landforms. If I did this again, I’d add a layer of garden dirt.

      We added colored sand to be able to better see erosion. We started dropping a 1 to 1 mixture of water and vinegar at the top of the paint tray and then pouring the remains back in the cup from the bottom paint well. You could see the change in the fluid with all the new particles and the movement of the sand, and after a few rounds, tributaries started getting bigger, clay walls were breaking down, clay tunnels collapsing, rocks were shifting.

      You can let the clay dry and make it a 2 class+ lesson, it may even be cooler. I shoved it into 1 1.5 hour class for practicum work at VCU. I do a number of lessons with science- the same kids did my absorption, diffusion, color perception lesson.

      • Thank you so much for your reply! And the link!

        Did you use regular play sand or was it a specific type of colored sand? Would you do the soil instead of or with the sand? And I’m assuming you’d let the clay dry before adding the soil? Sorry for asking so many questions!

      • It was random sand I found in our closet in little bags that I think was for sand art. Or some similar kit. I think soil would be an added benefit because it’s larger and you can press it into the clay. You can press sand too, but part of the colored tiny particle benefit is that I could put blu at the top grooves, pink on one tributary, and green at the bottom and kids could make observations on where the “eroded material” came from and how much of it there was. I’d probably use both. If you wanted to go a step further, you could make a teacher example and grow chia seed “grass” sprouts in a thin layer of dirt over the clay. Clay doesn’t have to dry. If you are using earth clay (clay that has to be baked in a kiln at 1500+ degrees to fully transform into ceramic) the vinegar will have the same effect; although I’m sure the effect may be quicker if the clay is still soft and breaks apart quicker.

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