40% of children don’t know that most of their food relies on soil and a third say they don’t have the opportunity to get their hands in soil

Education charity, The Country Trust, calls for urgent action to give children more soil-based learning in schools and launches Plant Your Pants campaign to help close the gap

A survey conducted by ChildWise[1] for education charity The Country Trust has revealed the worrying lack of understanding among children about the connection between the food they eat and the soil.

The survey of children aged 7 to 17 highlighted a significant knowledge gap, with around 40% of children saying they either don’t know or don’t believe soil is important for the production of the food they eat. This revelation is particularly alarming given that 95% of food, and therefore all human life, depends on soil, and it’s under significant threat.

The survey also found that around a third of children don’t have the opportunity to put their hands in soil – either through play or soil-based activities such as gardening – at home or at school. The findings reinforce the Country Trust’s call for every child’s education to include hands-on learning about the miraculous life support system beneath their feet and the farms that produce our food. The charity is launching its Plant Your Pants campaign on the first day of spring (20 March) as an easy way for everyone to learn more about soil – the invisible world that gives us life.

Reacting to the news, Jill Attenborough, CEO of The Country Trust, says:

“The results of this latest survey only serve to underline the urgent need for hands-on learning about soil and the land to be a vital part of every child’s education, from early years right through to further education. If we and our world are to thrive, we need our children to be given regular opportunities to get their hands dirty, in the soil. And we need to equip teachers to guide children to discover the amazing, life-giving world within it.

“Our work with schools across England and Wales, particularly those from areas of socioeconomic disadvantage, reveals a really significant gap in knowledge, even though ‘rocks and soils’ are part of the National Curriculum. If children don’t have the opportunity to discover through first-hand experience that their lives depend on healthy soil, how can we expect them to look after it or be equipped to deal with the global climate challenges ahead of them? We have launched a national soil health campaign, Plant Your Pants, as a fun, easy and eye-opening way for all of us to make better connections with the ground we rely on and hope everyone can take part this spring.”

The Country Trust connects disadvantaged children with the land that sustains us all through hands-on, sensory experiences of food and farming. Last year 23,000 children visited working farms with The Country Trust to learn at first-hand how food is grown and the vital importance of soil to all our lives.

The charity’s fun and interactive soil health campaign, Plant Your Pants, launches on the first day of spring (20 March 2024) and is designed to encourage everyone to plant a pair of cotton underpants and then dig them up two months later to discover what has happened to them, and see soil biodiversity in action. A healthy soil ecosystem will break down and degrade the cotton faster than soil with low microbial activity, ideally leaving behind only the elastic.

Jill Attenborough explains: “Plant Your Pants is an opportunity for all of us to become soil scientists – observing, touching, listening to, and smelling the soil. Using all our senses we will tune in to the wonder of the unseen micro-organisms beneath our feet and discover how good food, grown well in healthy soils directly impacts our health and the health of the planet itself. We support our network of schools to take part each year but this year we want to extend the invitation to everyone. We’re here to support everyone to get planting!”

Soil provides 95% of our food, but how many of us really know what is in the soil, how it is formed, and what life it sustains beyond the plants we can see growing in it? Soil holds many of the answers to our urgent climate questions. It is one of the most important carbon sinks on the planet with the capacity to capture and store carbon in plant roots and systems which, even on a small garden scale, can be very effective.

Tom Fairfax, a regenerative organic farmer based in Northumberland who hosts Country Trust Farm Discovery school visits and is a Plant Your Pants soil champion, said: “Healthy soil is teeming with life, much of which can’t be seen by the naked eye, so getting our hands in the soil and seeing the way it acts on a pair of cotton pants is a brilliant way to experience its magic.  We have ignored the soil for too long and this has had a negative impact, not only on the environment, but also the quality of the food grown in it and our health. We all have a role to play in improving our soil, all we have to do is open our senses to the ground around us and listen to what it has to tell us.”

Anyone can get involved with Plant Your Pants – it’s free to register online and you can join with other partici-pants by adding your pants to the interactive map. The activity can be enjoyed by individuals and families at home or by groups at allotment and gardening clubs, schools, youth and community groups or larger public access gardens. You don’t even need a garden – a window box or patio planter will do. Between 20 March and the big reveal in June, the Country Trust team, working with farmers and soil scientists will send informative and fun updates that encourage ‘partici-pants’ to use all their senses to explore the soil and encourage positive action to improve its health.

Find out more and register now at www.countrytrust.org.uk/plantyourpants

[1] ChildWise Playground Buzz Report, Autumn 2023, surveyed a sample of over 1,800 children via the ChildWise schools panel. Children from school years 3 to 12 were approached to take part. Interviews were carried out online in schools.