The Joy of Dirt
(Posted March 5)
Let’s take a moment to praise dirt—the honest dirt you get beneath your fingernails.
In modern life dirt is something we encourage our children to avoid.
Dirt is, after all, dirty. It’s not good for you if it gets in your mouth. Who knows where it’s been? It may have germs.
There are rocks in dirt. You can scrape your knee on rocks. You can throw rocks at someone who could be hurt and whose parents might sue us. Or, someone might throw a rock at you. You could get a tooth knocked out.
There are bugs in the dirt. Worms or insects which are gross and may carry diseases. Who would want to take a chance at that?
Dirt is not always stable. You can slip and fall on a hill of dirt. You can break your leg if you’re not careful.
While it’s true that you can build things with dirt and rocks and tree branches, why would you want to? You have plastic building blocks and cardboard boxes at home that are much safer.
If you get dirty you’ll have to change your clothes when you get home. A special load of wash might even have to be run if your clothes are dirty enough. This is annoying.
Besides, if you are out playing in the dirt there’s a chance we won’t be able to see you. Anything could happen to you. There are bad people out there. What would we do if something were to happen to you?
So we teach our children that dirt, by and large, is something to be avoided. The freedom to avoid dirt is considered progress in modern life. Dirt is for farmers. Dirt is an occupational hazard to be avoided if possible.
Personally, I disagree. Dirt is great stuff. It’s one of the building blocks of childhood.
Put a child in a dirt field and leave them alone and see what happens. After the initial shock of being removed from mobile devices and flat screens, their buried imagination will cautiously begin to assert itself. Flat fields will become arenas with fans cheering in the bleachers. Mounds of dirt will become mountains to be scaled. Secret forts will be built. Scrapes will be ignored after a quick wash with saliva. Sometimes other children will be encountered. Left to their own devices, children will usually work things out. If not, lessons will be learned. Bloody noses are not always signs of parental failure.
Dirt is a laboratory. There are things to be discovered. Dead rotted insects to be carefully collected and brought home for further inspection. Living insects to be kept in a jar for careful observation. Fossils that aren’t really fossils but they might be. Cool rocks that show off all kinds of colors once you rinse them with the hose.
If there’s not much dirt around where you live, take your children someplace where there is. Turn them loose. Tell them to go play. If they stare at you blankly and say “play what?” give them assignment. Find some animal bones. Build a fort. Just go play for awhile.
Scrapes heal. After a few days the swelling of ankle sprains goes down. Clothes can be washed. Torn shirts may have to be transformed into new rags. No matter.
By all means train your children to recognize a poisonous snake. Teach them that when encountering other children you should be kind. Otherwise, let them discover the world on their own.
Too many children are protected from the natural world as if it is unnatural. In so doing we are denying them one of their most human birthrights. If you were denied this yourself, please do not pass your avoidable handicap on to your children. Let them play in the dirt. Let them discover the pure joy of mud. Watch them laugh.