The World Beneath Your Feet: Slipping through the Soil

Adapted from Project Learning Tree, The Forest of S. T. Shrew

Pre-Visit Activity, All Grades


Students will explore the microhabitats of soil and rotting logs and become familiar with the animals in these microhabitats by taking an imaginary trip. 


  • Blackboard or dry-erase board
  • Markers, crayons, etc.
  • Drawing paper
  • Pictures of animals in story (optional) 


  1. Ask students if they have ever taken a walk in the forest.  Ask students what they saw when they took their hike.  List all their answers on the board.  Answers will probably include such large things as trees, leaves, bushes, birds, squirrels, etc.  Keep these answers on the board while you read the story.  Explain that there is a whole other world beneath their feet that they may not have seen while they were in the forest.  They are going to explore this world together by taking a virtual trip.
  2. Read the story to your students.  Since this is a virtual trip, students may be able to better picture this microhabitat under their feet if they can find a comfortable place to relax, close their eyes, imagine, and just listen.
  3. When the story is finished ask the students what Leia saw during her trip that was different from their list.  Make a second list next to the first and explore the differences (first list:  large plants and animals, second list:  small animals, fungi, etc.)
  4. Have the students draw a picture of the underground world of soil and rotting logs that Leia explored.  If you have photos or pictures of the animals in the story, place them up on the board so the students have a better idea of the creatures Leia saw. 

Slipping Through the Soil Story 

Leia sat down with a "humph."  "I don't think anything lives in these woods," she thought.  "I've been walking around for a long time, and I haven't seen anything except for a couple of squirrels and lots of trees."  Leia was supposed to be seeing all kinds of interesting, unusual animals to include in her report for school. 

"Pick a place near school or home, and investigate what lives there.  Then write a report about all the interesting and unusual things you find."  That was the assignment.  So Leia had picked this patch of woods behind the playground thinking it would be loaded with animals. 

"Now what am I going to do?" she wondered.  She closed her eyes to think... 

"So you don't think anything interesting lives in the woods?" she heard a high-pitched voice ask. 

"Who is that?" she gasped as she looked around.  But there was no one there. 

"Down here," said the voice.  Sitting next to her, with its head poking out from under the leaves, was a small furry animal with big whiskers and tiny eyes.  It repeated its question. 

"You don't think anything interesting lives in the woods?" 

"Well, I haven't seen anything until...I mean, I didn't...I mean, who are you?  Wh...wh...what are you?" she answered. 

"Everyone calls me Slick," he answered.  "I'm a shrew.  Now, put your finger on my nose." 

"What?" she asked, surprised. 

"Look, you want to know about who lives in these woods, don't you?  C'mon, hurry up!" 

Slowly, not quite believing what was happening to her, Leia reached out her finger and gently touched Slick on his nose.  There was a flash and she found herself standing next to Slick, looking him right in the eye.  Then, to her complete amazement she realized that she was standing on four legs, and was covered with fur!  She had turned into a shrew! 

"Much better," said Slick.  "Now, follow me." 

"Wh...wh...where are we going?"  asked Leia. 

"A lot of creatures around here are pretty mad that you don't even know they exist.  So I've been appointed to show you around.  Besides, you better stick with me if you don't want to get eaten!"  And with that Slick turned and dove down the hole he had popped out of earlier. 

As Leia stood wondering what she should do (after all her mother had told her never to go with strangers), she looked up and saw a large, hungry-looking bird flying overhead.  "Uh-oh?! She cried and dove into the hole after Slick. 

Leia had never crawled through the ground before and wasn't sure she liked it.  It was dark and damp and smelled like dirt.  And there were so many roots everywhere!  Tiny roots were constantly brushing by her face.  She and Slick had to crawl up, over, and around large roots and rocks over and over again.  Then all of a sudden Slick stopped. 

"Hey you guys!  We're here!" he yelled at the dirt walls of the tunnel.  At first Leia couldn't hear, see, or smell anything.  Then she felt a rumbling that seemed to be getting closer and closer.  Suddenly heads began popping out of the tunnel wall.  There were all sorts of creatures!  There were earthworms and beetles and white grubs and many other creatures Leia had never seen before and couldn't identify. 

"Do you all live in the ground?" asked Leia in awe and surprise. 

"Yeah, of course!  And lots of others do too," said one particularly fat earthworm. 

"But how do you live?" Leia asked.  "I mean...what is there to eat down here?" 

"Well, you could say I eat my way through the soil!" replied the earthworm.  "I make my own tunnels by eating the dirt, then separating out bits of plants and other food from the dirt particles.  It's not for everyone, but I love it!" he ended. 

"We don't eat the dirt, but we do suck the juices right out of roots," said three white grubs together.  "And one day we'll crawl up out of the ground and become adult beetles." 

"Did you ever wonder what happens to animals that die in the woods?" interrupted a black beetle, waving its antennae back and forth.  "It's thanks to me that they're taken care of." 

"He means, thanks to all us carrion beetles," said another black beetle.  "We eat those dead animals and help keep the forest floor clean." 

As Leia thought about all this, Slick thanked all the soil creatures for coming.  Then he turned to Leia and said, "Follow me.  There's still lots more for you to see." 

Leia followed Slick through the soil for a short distance; then they climbed up to the surface and ran along the ground under a cover of leaves.  As they traveled, the leaves crunched and rustled.  Leia could see spiders, centipedes, and other small creatures crawling around.  She wanted to stop and talk to them, but Slick kept moving and she knew she better keep up with him.  Finally, Slick did stop at the end of a log.  Slick ran onto the top of it and Leia quickly followed.  Most of the log was covered with a thick carpet of green moss. 

"Oh wow!" cried Leia.  "This moss is so soft.  And look at all the other things growing up here."  Leia ran around on top of the log.  She rolled in the soft moss, touching the cool, bright-orange fungi that were growing on one end of the log, and sniffing the tops of tall, red-capped lichens as though they were flowers.  There was even a tiny tree, only three inches tall, growing out of the log. 

"Want to see inside?" asked Slick. 

"You bet I would!" answered Leia, following Slick back over to the end of the log.  She waited as he called to someone named Millie.  In just a few seconds a long, dark creature with dozens of legs came crawling out of the end of the log. 

"Even I'm a little too big to go with you on this part of the trip," Slick told her.  "You go with Millie and I'll wait for you here." 

"But I'm just as big as you are," said Leia.  But just then Millie reared up and touched Leia's nose with several of her legs.  Just as before, there was a flash, and Leia turned into a millipede just like Millie. 

At first Leia found it a little difficult to move all her legs in a coordinated way.  But once she and Millie got inside the log, she was too busy looking around to think about how to walk and she didn't have any trouble at all. 

Millie was pointing out things and explaining them to Leia who was having trouble absorbing all the information.  Finally, she began to get the idea she was in a kind of factory, a factory that breaks down logs into soil.  Everywhere they were there were things chewing, tunneling, and boring through the wood.  There were wood roaches, small white termites, and hard-shelled pill bugs that rolled into tight balls as she and Millie went by.  There were also insect-eating hunters:  huge shiny-black beetles with giant jaws, and centipedes with venomous fangs.  And at one point, when they'd crawled deep inside the log, they saw a salamander resting in a dark damp hole in the decaying log. 

Leia had no idea there was so much activity inside a log and was really sorry when they headed back to Slick.  After Millie turned Leia back into a shrew, Leia and Slick said goodbye to Millie and scurried off. 

As Leia once more followed Slick through the ground, she began wondering where they could be going next.  It was dark and damp in the tunnel, and root hairs were brushing by her face.  As they ran along, the smell of dirt filled her nose... 

Suddenly, Leia opened her eyes.  She was back by the tree she'd sat down against earlier that day.  Somehow she'd fallen over and was lying on the ground with her face resting on top of the leaves.  Her nose was filled with the smell of dead leaves and dirt.  Slowly, Leia sat up. 

Did I dream the whole thing? She wondered as she looked around.  "There's the dead log over there," she said as she stood up.  Still her adventure seemed impossible.  But then Leia looked at the ground near where she'd been sitting and reached over to the spot that seemed to be where she thought she had first seen Slick.  As she carefully lifted up some leaves, she saw a small hole in the ground and a tiny shrew disappearing into the ground.  Leia laughed out loud.  "Wow, do I ever have a lot to write about in my report!" she exclaimed.  Then she turned and ran all the way home.