Soil science and role plays: A new approach to extension

There are a number of challenges when providing extension and education about soils. One is the fact that soils can be a highly technical and involved subject. This fact can sometimes lead extension professionals and

Invisible soil inhabitants (Img Src:

Invisible soil inhabitants (Img Src:

specialists into the trap of providing soils information using technical jargon which may not be understandable to non scientists and farmers. Also, participants in soil field days often do not have the background scientific knowledge that presenters have. This can further reduce effective delivery & assimilation of soils information.

Another challenge to effective soils knowledge dissemination is the fact that many key soil processes occur at scales beyond the human senses. For example soil chemical properties can often only be measured using lab equipment. Soil biological properties, especially soil microbiology, are also difficult to comprehend because they are not something we can observe directly. A final major challenge of soils extension is the fact that soil management is a complex topic of ecology with many factors, processes and relationships occurring at different times and at different scales. This of course makes it difficult to have black and white simple answers to many questions of soil management. Foundation principles of soil science and action learning (ongoing observation and adaptation) are key to successful soil management.

Soil biological fertility is one area of soils that has become incredibly important to landholders and farmers over the past decade. This increase in interest is probably concurrent with the scientific realisation that soil organic matter and soil biological fertility are as important as soil chemistry: for so long the main focus of much soil science and extension. This focus on the importance of soil biological fertility has led to hundreds of workshops being run around Australia over the last decade with the aim of teaching farmers and landholders about “soil biology”!

The information delivery method of many of these “Soil Biology”days has been the ubiquitous Powerpoint Presentation. Feedback from, discussions with and observations of, people who have attended Soil Biology days over many years has shown that effective extension of Soil Biology information does not occur when Powerpoints are the main method of communication. It often results in passive communication to learners who often do not retain memory and understanding of key concepts after the extension event. Indeed using Powerpoints alone to communicate Soil Biology concepts can often result in the three extension issues mentioned above being made worse.

These types of workshops can result in participants being thrown a whole new technical vocabulary (the world of microbiology) and meeting a lot of new creatures (soil microbes) who they cannot observe practically in the paddock. Participants can come away from these days feeling that the world of soil biology is so complex that it is unmanageable! On top of these issues presenters, especially those who are “anti-chemistry”, may not relate biology to chemistry and so leave participants with the feeling that you either believe in soil biology or in soil chemistry, but not both!

One method to overcome the above issues when trying to provide soil science information, and especially soil biology information, to farmers is to use role play games as a method to present information. Using role plays is a well known effective teaching method for both adults and children. It provides the opportunity for learners to experience the topic from the first person in an action-based, non passive way. This is action learning and it allows learners to participate in and to feel the soil concepts. This often results in a real shift in understanding.

I first started to use role plays to teach soil biology topics about 8 years ago and immediately found that they were highly effective at introducing the complex topic of soil biology. Role plays usually require participation of all present and they fulfil a number of key outcomes on top of effectively passing on soil biology information.

Because they are informal and participatory, role plays usually create a relaxed atmosphere in the learning group. They break down the barrier between the teacher and the learners. This helps greatly with learning. Role plays usually also result in humour being expressed as the role play unfolds. This not only helps relax participants but it builds group trust. Group trust is critical for the peer to peer learning that comes out during well facilitated soils workshops. Landholders and farmers often have vast experience in soil management and when people feel trust in the group they are more confident to share knowledge and experiences. This adds greatly to the learning for all participants.

Once a facilitator is experienced in using role plays as a tool they become a very flexible method of soils extension. If during a role play participants show a keen interest in a particular topic then the facilitator can switch to that topic and take the role play along a new direction. So for example if the role play is focussing on the soil carbon cycle and biological nitrogen fixation becomes a key point of immediate interest, the role play can be steered along the biological nitrogen fixation story to cover any questions before coming back to the Carbon topic. This type of flexibility is impossible with a structured, passive Powerpoint-based presentation. Role plays are a much better tool for matching information to the needs of any learning group.

Using role play soil biology topics are no longer a “black box” as the role play technique allows everyone to explore it down to a microscopic and molecular level. In addition role plays allow participants to clearly see the interactions between soil chemistry and soil biology, often a major deficiency at “Soil Biology” and “Soil Health” workshops.

Finally role plays can be done anywhere and with almost any number of participants. In a farm shed with no power, out in the paddock, at a soil pit site or in a large hall with over 80 people in attendance, role plays are effective in all these situations. Indeed I have successfully conducted the activity internationally to participants for whom English was not their first language. Ideally more than 8 people is needed but with less than this you can still use the basic approach to achieve soils extension.

The first key requirement when using role plays is to have the basic props to ensure it can be done effectively. Role play cards (which can be hand written on paper 10 minutes before), outlining the key soil organisms and microbes, along with a cube of topsoil and roots, a couple of buckets, rocks, a bag of lollies and some local organic matter are all that is needed. Role plays are very effective in a variety settings but are especially useful at a soil pit site where participants can correlate their role play activities to a living soil ecosystem. The second key requirement is to be well prepared. The facilitator needs to have a good knowledge of their extension topic.

The “Day in the Life of a Soil” role play activity has been adapted and used widely across many Landcare groups, as well as at a number of Catchment Management Authority and landholder field days. We used it with Little River, Central Tablelands, Dundeoo-Coolah & Watershed Landcare Groups as part of the highly successful “Establishing the Link: Soil Health through Land Management in the Central West” project in 2012. Landcare groups in southern Queensland, northern NSW and southern NSW have also participated in these workshops. It has also been used successfully to explain bio-fertiliser technology to farmers. Simon Hamlet at DAFF, Qld is currently developing a Resource Kit based on the activity for Teachers in Qld. This will be used to help children learn more about the life in the soil and how important it is for all of us.



David Hardwick is an agricultural ecologist who specialises in soils. He currently works as an independent consultant and trainer. He has previously worked in Landcare in Qld and NSW, as an agronomist and as a Technical Manager in the bio-fertiliser industry.

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