When you’re teaching your kids about the big wide world, why not start in your own backyard? Give them a shovel and turn them loose on the path to learning first-hand about our planet’s rocks and minerals through your own backyard geology.
Rocks and stones are solids naturally made from minerals. Becoming a rock-finder, or a rockhound as some call it, is a cool way to spend time and learn about how rocks are formed.
When you introduce your kids to geological exploration, it’s quite possible that this up-close, hands-in-the-dirt, real-life learning can spark a lifelong interest in science and geology. They can hunt for and examine rocks and discover how and when those rocks or minerals formed on Earth. Kids – and adults – can uncover facts about their own local geology and then branch out to other cities, states, countries, and continents. Pretty much wherever you go, you can find rocks.
We’ll show you easy-to-use tools and methods for finding and identifying different types of rocks and minerals. You don’t have to be an expert, and this may become a great hobby and bonding experience for your whole family.
Why is Backyard Geology the Perfect Hobby?
Ever wondered what lies beneath the surface of your yard? Why not find out? Rockhounding is enjoyed worldwide by many. Now’s the perfect time to start a geology project in the comfort of your environment.
Hands-on learning tends to stick long after book chapter information is jettisoned from children’s memories, so rock-collecting is a wonderful introduction to Earth sciences. Kids can gain an appreciation for and expertise in useful scientific methods like observation, examination, note-taking, and online data research. This can even ignite conversations during road trips as your kids notice different types of rock formations alongside the road. Feel free to pull off the road to examine those rocks up close for an impromptu onsite experience.
Gather the Basic Tools
You can easily find many of the tools you’ll need at home, making this an economical hobby. You don’t need to buy fancy tools. Items you don’t have in your own garage, basement, shed, or junk drawer you can find at your local hardware store, yard sale, or thrift store. Involve your kids in the gathering process.
- Garden shovel
- Small hand shovel or digging spoon
- Gardening gloves
- Sifting pan
- Small notepad with a pen or two
- Nail made of iron or a paperclip
- Small piece of unglazed porcelain or ceramic tile
- Small unused glass bottle, drinking glass or coffee mug you won’t mind being damaged
- Paper towels
- Small sealable containers to hold stones or soil
- Old wheat penny or an old copper mug
- Kitchen magnet
- Camera or cell phone camera
- Magnifying glass
- Desk or a table with a lamp for a workspace
- Internet to access rock and mineral identification sites like minerals.net and Geology.com
- A beginner’s geology book like National Geographic Kids “Everything Rocks and Minerals.”
While gathering supplies, also think of comfort while digging. You may want a rain umbrella or beach umbrella for shade, so kids aren’t in the sun for too long. If the soil is rocky, you may want a thick blanket for the ground. Bring baby wipes for dirty hands and dirty rocks.
Find the Perfect Place to Dig
Now that you have supplies, it’s time to find that perfect digging spot. It could be in your back yard or front yard, but if you have a well-manicured lawn with soil that doesn’t have rocks anymore, you may need to branch out in your quest. If your yard already has some rocks poking through the soil, that’s a great place to start. Streams, ponds, or rivers are also great places to find rocks easily.
Think about other places you could go to. How about a park or campground? Friend’s or relative’s house? If you go on private property, always ask permission and research local laws and regulations about digging or removing property at parks or other public places.
Before you start digging, make sure you and your kids have done some research (what every good scientist does) about your particular area – what kind of minerals and rocks can you expect to find? Is there a nature center nearby? Some display examples of minerals and rocks you could encounter and might have brochures you can take with you to help identify your finds.
You may want to buy a rock and mineral identification book or borrow one from the library. Or, if your digging location has internet reception, you can let your Google fingers fly. Keep in mind, however, that there are some locations in nature parks where you won’t have any phone or internet reception.
Before digging in a yard, take the time to locate where your cable, phone, water, sewer, and electric lines are buried. While most of the lines are buried deeper than you may be digging, some lines like cable are closer to the surface, and you don’t want a shovel to slice through one of those.
Let’s Explore and Dig
Take stock of the weather and dress accordingly for your time in the elements. You may need to pack sun-shade hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen. If you’re meandering through a park, wear hiking shoes or ones with good tread. Pack snacks and plenty of water and have a GPS app on your phone in case you go off the trail. A backpack with your essentials and portable geology tools is a great idea. Don’t forget your notebook and a couple of pens. If your kids bring an electronic tablet, charge the battery and make sure they don’t drop it on the hard rocks. Keep paper and pen as a backup. All good scientists have a backup plan.
If you’re in your yard, start somewhere that’s not near the back door and doesn’t damage existing landscaping or the roots of plants or trees. As you or your kids gain skills in geology exploration, you’ll learn how to leave the ground looking less disturbed.
Start your hunt for minerals and rocks.
What Did You Find?
Use the shovel to dig for minerals or stones. Start collecting loose stones and soil samples to sift for smaller rocks. As you go along, examine each stone and record information about each stone, including location and depth it was found, the exact color, and its overall appearance. Is it smooth, jagged, rough, etc.? Clear the dirt from the stone and wash it with water to get a better idea of its color. Once you’ve clearly identified the stone, you can add more specific details later, like its weight and precise measurements.
Use your magnifying glass for close examination. Each rock can be a mix of lots of minerals, so its outer appearance may not tell the whole picture. The next thing you’ll do is what’s called a strike test. Scrape the stone across your piece of tile, glass, or coffee mug to reveal the true color. If you observe a scratch on your tile or mug, you know that the mineral is harder than the tile or mug, so make a note of that. Take photos to document.
Now it’s time to bring some more science into play by assessing just how hard the stone is. You’ll do this by using techniques from the Mohs Hardness Scale. The fingerprint test comes first: scratch the stone with your fingernail. If you leave behind a mark on the stone, it’s a soft rock measured at about 2.5 Mohs. Now, it’s time to break out more of your tools. Scratch the stone with the penny, glass, and porcelain. The harder the substance, the higher its Mohs number will be. You can find lots of information about the Mohs Hardness Scale and testing by visiting the Mohs Hardness Scale.
The harder a substance is, the more commercial value it has. The hardest substance, at 10 Mohs, is a diamond. There are also gems and other stones out there, but you probably won’t find those in your backyard, however.
You’re ready for another test on your stone. Pour a bit of vinegar on the stone (be careful not to do it on the grass or vegetation, as vinegar kills living plants). Try to pour the vinegar on the spot you already scratched. This checks for effervescence.
After that, you can use your strong magnet to test whether there’s an iron mineral in it. This could indicate hematite or magnetite or even a rare meteorite.
As you test, keep careful notes. You can take photos or make sketches as you progress. Write down interesting features of the stone. Are there sparkly pieces in it, like crystals?
If you’re on location, after you’ve done field tests, you can bag your stone or place it in a container with its identification to bring home. If the stones are from a park, ask a ranger or park attendant before taking them.
As you’re in the field, take notes about details like the date, weather conditions, nearby landmarks, soil features, even any wildlife you see. Was the stone buried or open to the elements like sun, wind, rain, or snow?
Use the internet to research your rock or minerals – explore subjects like when was it discovered, where is it most often found, and what man has used that rock or mineral for over the years. You can share these facts about rocks with others.
The more you explore and learn about rocks and minerals, the more you’ll uncover. Think about keeping a small, travel-friendly geology kit in your car trunk for those times you want to explore and collect when you’re someplace new or intriguing.
Three Types of Rocks
There are three different types of rocks, all naturally made from minerals. The rocks you collect will be igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic rocks.
Igneous rocks are the result of molten magma material that solidifies as it cools, forming into igneous rock. You can find these mostly in the northwest parts of the United States. Granite, pumice (like lava rock), basalt, and obsidian are examples of this kind of rock.
If you find rocks with fossils, these are probably sedimentary rocks. This type was formed from sediment deposited over time from remains of plants or animals and eroded pieces of other rocks—these rocks formed in layers in places like lakes and oceans. You may find these in locations that once were underwater. Chalk, sandstone, mudstone, and flint are examples of sedimentary rocks. These are some examples of fossils.
Heat, strong pressure, and fluids can, over time, transform sedimentary or igneous rocks into metamorphic rocks. You’ll find lots of these rocks in mountainous geography. Examples of these rocks include marble, slate, quartzite, granuline, and schist.
Make a Display for your Collection
Store and label your collected rocks in plastic, see-through containers. Affix labels with facts like the kind of rock or mineral, location, and date found. You can even number the rocks to correspond with your numbered notes.
You can even display your rock collection, either alone or as a group. Some rocks, like geodes, reveal extraordinary, sparkling quartz crystals inside when broken apart. (Breaking rocks must be done carefully with a hammer, with eye protection, and under adult supervision.) Some people like to split geodes and other strikingly colorful rocks, polish, and use them as bookends or conversation pieces. Displaying your rocks is also a great way to introduce others to your hobby.
You can find numerous online tutorials that show how to custom-make hanging or tabletop displays. You could start with a shadow box from an arts and crafts store or repurpose items found in thrift stores or second-hand marketplaces.
Print out the identification of each rock to glue onto the display, or carefully paint the information on with different colored paint pens. You can display your cool rocks individually with their own pedestals or polish colorful stones and place them in a mason jar to display on a sunny windowsill.
Welcome to a Lifelong Hobby
Now that you’ve had a taste of the intriguing world of geology, you may discover that wherever you travel, you automatically start scanning the ground and displacing dirt here or there, looking for an interesting rock. for example, if you ever find yourself in the Czech Republic you might be able to do some rockhounding searching for the mystical Moldavite, or if you are in Chiapas Mexico you can hope to find an Amber Stone. Put it this way with your newfound knowledge, you’ll be able to identify your new treasures when you find them.