My inner child is ROFL.  Apparently, a of couple generations of television and air conditioning have conditioned parents to think of the outdoors as “uncomfortable” or “dirty,” even “dangerous.”  My assignment: to write an article to convince parents to let their children play in dirt.  Flash back to a childhood with summer vacation spent almost entirely outdoors, and you can appreciate how bizarre it seems that today’s parents need to be coerced into letting their children play outside and get dirty. 

Here goes.

Consider the health benefits.  Playing in dirt means you are outside, which means fresh air and exercise.  Contrast the “stale” air indoors—with accumulating exhaled carbon dioxide and other toxins—with the oxygen-rich air supplied by trees and other plants.  Increased oxygen in the bloodstream provides energy and increases metabolism.  Fresh air lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system and improves sleep.  Both fresh air and exercise stimulate appetite so there’s a better chance of getting your children to try some nutritious foods.  Healthy foods also give energy so your children will want to get outside and play.  Playing outside is part of the cycle of a healthy lifestyle.

The creative component to playing with dirt may need to be pointed out.  Dirt has no directions.  No picture on the box of what it should look like when you’re finished.  You can pretty much do what you want with it—within reasonable limits of safety and consideration of others.

Consider the open-endedness.  The creative component to actually playing with dirt may need to be pointed out.  Dirt has no directions.  No picture on the box of what it should look like when you’re finished.  You can pretty much do what you want with it—within reasonable limits of safety and consideration of others. Generations of children have used dirt for drawing with sticks, inventing games such as mancala, creating roads and tunnels, finding worms, building obstacles for ants to crawl over, making mud pies, burying and digging for “treasure,” and countless other enterprises.  Young dirt specialists observe the differences of topsoil, sandy soil, clay soil, wet soil, dry soil, and apply their growing knowledge to their play.  There are limitless possibilities.

In case playing in dirt is new to you, here are some pointers:

Step One:  Check the Weather

If your family hasn’t been outside for years you might need some safety tips regarding weather.  It’s not a good idea to be outdoors in extreme weather conditions.  A reliable weather website will help you dodge heatstroke, sun poisoning and other problems.  If thunderstorms are in the forecast, you should know that lightening can strike before the rain falls.  Take heed when you hear the rumble of distant thunder and note if it’s coming closer.  When the time between the flash and the rumble is 30 seconds or less, you should be inside.  Thanks to satellites and other modern technology, though, we get plenty of warning to avoid outdoor activity in thunderstorms, hurricanes and such.

Step Two:  Dress appropriately

Outdoor enthusiasts believe there is no such thing as “bad weather,” just inappropriate clothing.  (Still, we’re not going outside to play in a thunderstorm.)  Play clothes should be dirt accommodating—easy to clean or already stained.  Appropriate clothing for climbing on rocks would include flexible, closed-toed shoes with good traction.  The best shoes for wading in a stream are the old sneakers you’ve worn long enough to have a few holes in them.  The rubber soles still protect you from unseen sticks, rocks and crayfish, while the holes keep you from getting too water-logged.  Included in my storehouse of childhood memories is the time our mother sent us out in bathing suits in a light summer rain to wash the family car.  I recall the tires were rather mud-caked, probably from a recent camping trip.  The neighbor kids saw what fun we were having and soon joined in.  Then the sun came out and we made rainbows with the hose.  Whether or not the car got clean seems irrelevant even now.

Step Three:  What to Bring

If this is your first foray into playing in dirt, you might bring along some props and tools.  The more you go out, the more you’ll know what you’ll need, if anything.  For starters, try garden trowels or beach shovels. As a toddler, my son had several sturdy margarine tubs that served as dirt toys as well as bath toys.  (A factor in choosing good dirt toys is similar to choosing clothing: either easy-to-clean or OK to stay dirty.)  If you get into civil engineering—shaping dirt roads, constructing stick buildings, harnessing hose water to make canals—add some toy cars, trucks and boats. Some older children on my block (probably age 10 to my 7) taught my friends and me how to smash rocks with a hammer to extract garnet stones.  Just to verify my memory, I found a website that concurs this was possible.  Safety goggles are a good idea. (More tips at ehow.com/how_7600937_garnets-maryland.html.) When you become serious dirt players, you can pack a snack or lunch, and maybe a wet soapy washcloth in a plastic bag, although over time, you won’t stress out so much about clean hands.

Step Four:  Find a Good Location

Your nearest dirt patch or pile is probably close to home if not right outside it.  Planting and maintaining a garden counts as playing in the dirt.  Some backyards have a designated dirt area, either because the children already play there enough that the grass doesn’t grow or a quantity of dirt is put there just for this purpose.  If you don’t have dirt just outside, or you hanker to explore, there are local playgrounds and parks galore for everything from quick outings to overnight camping.  Check out these websites for good prospects:

dc.about.com/od/dcparks/a/WashDCParks.htm

mncppc.org/parks_facilities.html

nvrpa.org/

Step Five:   Respect Plant Life

Learn to respect poison ivy.  A park ranger can help you identify it, but the simplest precaution is to stay away from any “leaves of three.” In general, it’s a good idea to teach your children to let living plants be--other than the weeds you choose to remove from your own yard.  Edible plants are a tasty and convenient exception.  A park program (or experienced child/former child) can show you how to pick wild berries and to strip “honey” from a honeysuckle.  A favorite summer pastime on my husband’s block was making mint juice, using a rock and a pot as a mortar and pestle, then adding water. (His mother, for the record, was not thrilled about this!)

Step Six:  Know Your Insects

At Brownie Day Camp (at Brighton Dam) the counselors taught us how to play with a daddy longlegs and how to get serious with a potentially disease-carrying tick.  These skills held me in good stead among my elementary school peer group.  I could nonchalantly take a daddy longlegs off a squeamish classmate and once spotted and removed a tick from another child’s ear.  (And flushed it down the toilet.)  I still enjoy escorting the harmless spider away from frightened folk of all ages, and though I can’t say I enjoy it, I will deftly dispose of the blood sucking ectoparasite when necessary. 

You can get better acquainted with all kinds of insects (or rocks, plants, birds, etc.) from field guides and the many park programs in the Washington metropolitan area.

What are you waiting for? Go play in the dirt!


Deborah Wood is a child development specialist residing in Annapolis.

Editor's Note: Congratulations to Deborah Wood, whose 12-part child development series received recognition at the March 2012 Parenting Media Association. See the entire series on our website: washingtonparent.com/special-features/child-development-series.php.

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