The grimy little guy you see below is my great-nephew, who’s almost 9 and the luckiest kid I know: His mom lets him play in the dirt.
Or, in this case, the mud. They’d gone to Kincaid Park, where Malachi and some other kids thoroughly immersed themselves in play on the muddy beach. Alison brought along dry clothes so he wouldn’t wreck the inside of the family car.
“I did have to hose off his hair at the house, before his shower,” she said.
Playing in the dirt is truly frugal fun: Give a kid a spoon and some old plastic containers and watch her go to town. What’s more, science seems to indicate dirt is literally good for our kids.
“Let your kids get dirty!” at the Simple Mom blog links to research that indicating exposure to soil improves a person’s immune system and increases the production of the feel-good chemical serotonin. No wonder gardeners and children are always happy.
Down and dirty
My siblings and I played outdoors all year long. Spring and summer meant dirt, dirt, dirt. We made mud pies, dug holes, splashed in the puddles that formed in the sand alongside the road. Worms were like pets. Sometimes I’d pull up a weed and observe its dirt-caked, intricate roots. I liked the way the dirt smelled.
I remember lying on the ground to watch insects trundling bits of sand to build mounds or dragging food back to their homes. Sometimes I’d see a bunch of tiny ants moving a much larger dead insect and marvel at their strength.
Such things can now be glimpsed on the Discovery Channel, complete with binomial nomenclature. But they’re so much better experienced up-close and personal. Besides, with TV you don’t get to drop a cracker crumb and watch the ants scurry to “harvest” it.
Since my mom insisted on nightly baths it didn’t matter how grungy we got. I remember a sense of satisfaction when I saw dirt melting off me and into the water. It wasn’t that I craved cleanliness – except that it made my mother happy – but more of a scientific interest about how things work. First you get dirty, then you wash the dirt away. Interesting stuff for a small child.
(My gardening friends are making faces right now. “It’s soil, not dirt,” they’re saying. “Soil is a living organism. ‘Dirt’ is what’s in your vacuum-cleaner bag.” For the purposes of this essay, “dirt” and “soil” will be used interchangeably. Besides, I don’t vacuum all that often.)
Marginalizing Mother Nature
Dirt isn’t always benign, of course. Tetanus spores are found in soil. So are pinworms and the potentially lethal raccoon roundworm, a parasite found in the animal’s feces that can cause serious injury or death if accidentally ingested.
There are no absolute guarantees that a raccoon has never pooped in your yard. But there’s a whole lot of things we can’t guarantee. We can’t know whether the last person to touch the church doorknob was incubating the flu. We can’t be sure that the car ride to a play date won’t result in a flaming wreck.
Life is full of uncertainties. It’s also too short to spend as a germophobe.
I feel sorry for children whose only attachment with nature comes from a manicured soccer field. Even those who have yards to play in may find most of the landscape off-limits. Our yards have become shrines to lawnmowers and fertilizers. Any soil that doesn’t sprout grass must be larded with perennials or sprinkled with carefully chosen rocks – and any kid who goes in with a bucket and shovel will call down the Furies, or at least get himself a big old time-out.
For too long we’ve looked at the natural world with an attitude of “Ah, wilderness…let’s pave it!” We marginalize “nature” as something to be enjoyed in short doses from a well-maintained path that’s not too far from a parking lot. Because nature is, well, dirty. As in, full of dirt.
But kids love dirt. They love digging in it, sculpting with it, pouring water onto it. Dirty hands, dirty faces, dirty clothes – and happy children. All it will cost you is a little extra soap, and some patience. But let them be kids.
And why not try it yourself? Dig a few holes. Lie down and make mud angels. Your children will never forget the day you slopped around in the dirt with them. They’ll also enjoy hosing off your head.