Hands-On Science and Literacy Activities about Rocks and Minerals

Rocks and minerals are a common topic in the elementary science curriculum, typically appearing at an introductory level in the primary grades and again in more detail in third or fourth grade. Upper-elementary students usually learn the techniques for mineral classification, the characteristics of sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks, and the rock cycle.

However, a dichotomy exists between national standards and benchmarks and common curricular concepts.

The National Science Education Standards (National Research Council 1996) states that, at the K-4 level, “understanding rocks and minerals should not be extended to the study of the source of the rocks, such as sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic, because the origin of rocks and minerals has little meaning to young children.”

The Benchmarks for Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science 1993) provides the following sequence for the study of geology:

By the end of the 2nd grade, students should know that:

  • Chunks of rock come in many sizes and shapes, from boulders to grains of sand and even smaller.

By the end of the 5th grade, students should know that:

  • Rock is composed of different combinations of minerals. Smaller rocks come from the breakage and weathering of bedrock and larger rocks. Soil is made partly from weathered rock, partly from plant remains – and also contains many living organisms.

It is not until the middle school years (grades 6-8) that either the NSES or Benchmarks discusses the types of rock or the rock cycle and their close relationship to the theory of plate tectonics.

However, the reality is that, despite the recommendations of these documents, teachers and students are still required to follow their local standards and curriculum – which may include higher-level concepts. And a 2007 National Research Council publication, Taking Science to School, suggests that we, as educators, may underestimate children’s ability to learn and do science. What, then, should an elementary teacher do?

The best answer, as always, is to consider the abilities and needs of your particular students. As well stated in Taking Science to School (National Research Council 2007):

What children are capable of at a particular age is the result of a complex interplay among maturation, experience, and instruction. Thus, what is developmentally appropriate is not a simple function of age or grade. What children do is in large part contingent on their prior opportunities to learn and not on some fixed sequence of developmental stages.

As you well know, the students in your class are at a wide variety of maturity levels and cognitive abilities. Even when you are following state standards and prescribed curriculum, differentiated instruction is needed to meet the needs of all students. Even with such modifications, students will achieve at different levels depending on their abilities and past experiences with science. Complex concepts, such as the types of rocks and the rock cycle, are no different. Considering the scope and sequence of your school’s curriculum as well as the backgrounds and preconceptions of your students will help you tailor your instruction in a way that fulfills standards and meets student needs.

It is also helpful to remember that these concepts are taught not only in elementary school but at the middle school level and beyond. Considering your efforts as the introduction to the science of geology is helpful and a good reminder that students will not necessarily master all the complex concepts on first exposure.

In this article, we highlight lesson plans and activities that support science and literacy instruction that is consistent with the curricula used by many districts and schools. K-2 lessons and activities revolve around hands-on experience with rocks and minerals and initial experience with description, measurement, and drawing. Lessons for grades 3-5 delve more deeply into the subject, introducing the three types of rocks, differentiating between rocks and minerals, and providing opportunities for classification and analysis. We have deliberately chosen to provide only a basic introduction to the rock cycle, as this difficult concept is inextricably linked to the theory of plate tectonics, a topic typically reserved for the middle school years. You may choose to include this in greater depth for students needing further challenge.

As always, our philosophy is that the hands-on experiences found in the featured science lessons provide a natural context for reading, writing, and discussion. The recommended titles in this month’s Virtual Bookshelf and Feature Story are meant to supplement and extend the activities described below.

For each science lesson, we’ve included the appropriate National Science Education Standards. You can read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

Grades K-2

Rock Hunters (Grades K-2)

In this lesson, students make detailed observations of rocks. Through their observations, students will begin to develop an understanding that there are different types of rocks with different attributes. Students record their observations through drawings and words.

This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard and Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

To further integrate literacy skills into this lesson, try the following:

Using Children’s Natural Curiosity to Lead to Descriptive Writing (Grades K-2)

Inspired by the book It Starts with an A, this lesson invites students to combine their experiences with familiar objects (rocks) and descriptive writing. For this lesson, students will make a class book. Each student draws a rock on the back of a sheet of paper. On the front of the paper, they write three clues that describe the rock. Students can share this book with family members and peers before adding it to their classroom library.

This lesson meets the following NCTE/IRA Standards: 3, 4, 5, 12.

Sampling Rocks (Grades K-2)

Students collect and analyze a sample of rocks from the schoolyard, create a rock guide for the schoolyard, and are introduced to the notion of samples. Reading Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor and creating a rock guide provide literacy connections.

This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard and Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

To further integrate literacy skills into this lesson, try the following:

How Does My Garden Grow? Writing in Science Field Journals (Grades K-2)

This lesson plan invites students to record observations of a class garden in a field journal, but the journal templates and lesson concept can be easily modified to accompany a rock sampling lesson.

This lesson meets the following NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12.

Grades 3-5

Minerals, Crystals, and Gems: Stepping Stones to Inquiry (Grades 3-5)

This issue of Smithsonian in Your Classroom introduces students to the basics of mineral science and teaches the scientific process by providing opportunities for students to observe, form hypotheses, and draw conclusions. A three-lesson series involves creating a classroom exhibit of rocks and minerals, observing crystal formation, and conducting a mineral scavenger hunt. Detailed teacher content knowledge and resources include specimens from the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. These lessons could be supplemented with pictures from the Smithsonian Gem and Mineral Collection.

These lessons meet the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard and the Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

Rock Hounds with Rocky (Grades 3-5)

A web-based, interactive site for students to learn about sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks. The site includes animations of rock formation, rock specimens (with color pictures and descriptive information), a lesson plan, and collaborative ideas for teachers, including a rock exchange between classrooms.

These lessons meet the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard and the Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

Rock Discovery (Grades 3-5)

This lesson integrates the three types of rocks with the rock cycle.

This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard and the Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

To further integrate literacy skills into these lessons, try the following:


American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 1993. Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Research Council (NRC). 2007. Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Jessica at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright September 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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