The rock cycle is perhaps the most basic, fundamental principle of geology. All rocks are related to each other and may be transformed from one kind to another. In its simplest form, the rock cycle describes the relationships between the 3 major types of rock:
Molten rock or magma solidifies either rapidly at the Earth’s surface or slowly under the Earth’s surface into igneous rock (this is the whole crayon we start with). As these rocks are exposed to erosion and weathering, they are broken down into sediment (a pile of crayon shavings). The grains of sediment may be transported long distances by water, wind or gravity, and eventually deposited in layers. As more and more sediment layers build up on top of each other, the sediments are compacted and sometimes cemented together into sedimentary rock (squishing the crayon shavings together) in a process called lithifaction. With heat and pressure (partial melting in hot water), the rock will undergo a physical and/or chemical change into metamorphic rock. If the rock is melted completely and cooled, you once again have igneous rock.
The rock cycle is attributed to James Hutton (1726-1797), the “father of geology” who meticulously explored and documented the landscape of the British Isles. Hutton proposed the principle of uniformitarianism, the idea that the processes that shape the world today also operated in the past. His idea brought about the revolutionary notion that given how long it takes for geologic processes to occur today, the Earth must be very very old for all the existing landforms to have been created, not merely the 6000 years allowed by tracing Biblical genealogy. One of his most famous quotes states that with respect to the Earth there is “no vestige of a beginning, and no prospect of an end”.
With greater scientific sophistication and the plate tectonics revolution, many geologists now believe that the basic rock cycle described in this lesson is too simple. The basic rock cycle is cyclical, with no apparent direction or trend. Instead, if plate tectonics is taken into account, there may indeed be a trend towards greater and greater diversity of rock types over time. For more information, see the Tectonic Rock Cycle
It helps the discussion of sedimentary rocks if students are familiar with soil separation and identifying different sediments (gravel, sand, silt, clay) by size. See Soil Analysis Lesson, Erosion Patterns Lesson and/or the Sediment Study Project.