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The secret history of dirt, explained to kids

It’s not just the stuff beneath our feet. It’s the stuff of life.

Dirt. We think we know it. But do we really?

What if dirt isn’t just the stuff we knock off our soccer cleats and brush off our knees? What if it’s the key to life on planet Earth?

Dirt is alive. It’s full of billions of creatures so small you can’t even see them under a microscope. For 10,000 years, dirt has helped humans convert the limitless energy of the sun into the plants and animals we eat to keep us alive.

Dirt has been good to us. But it turns out, we haven’t been very good to the dirt.

This is the story of how dirt helped build civilization, only to get stabbed in the back by us. We’ll explore how humans zapped the life out of dirt in just a few short centuries in the hopes of getting rich, and how those mistakes are coming back to haunt us. And we’ll get our hands dirty with a farmer who has figured out how to nurse sick dirt back to health.

Roll up your sleeves. It’s time to get dirty.

Try the dirt experiment featured in this episode for yourself. You can print it out from this link.

This video is part of Vox’s first-ever week of video programming for kids. We designed these episodes for kids ages 9 to 13, but we hope everyone in our audience enjoys them.

If you’re a parent, educator, or a kid at heart, please sign up for our newsletter for updates on all of our upcoming kids’ programming at Vox, from podcasts to videos to new shows: http://www.vox.com/kids

Special thanks to Rachel Gianni, a consultant we worked with on this week of programming.

Additional reading and sources

Soil Foodweb Institute (Australia)

Civilizations rise and fall on the quality of their soil (Science Daily)

One amazing substance allowed life to thrive on land (BBC)

The Big Bloom—How Flowering Plants Changed the World (National Geographic)

Soil Science Society of America (SSSA)

Farmers and Their Languages: The First Expansions (Science)

The Science Behind the Three sisters (Cornell University)

Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues (Scientific American)