Thursday, May 5, 2011

Playing in the Dirt

I am a gardener now but I began a happy relationship with dirt as a child of dirt tolerant parents. This week I watched children playing in a park sandbox and thought "this is a pale imitation of the experience a child can have while playing in good rich black dirt".   I was transported back several decades to the yard where I grew up and to the summer when my dad bought a big mound of rich black garden soil.  My brother and I  quickly claimed it for our own, spending hours each day on the hill moving dirt around.

We played alone much of the time, engaged directly with the dirt and whatever imaginary world we were creating so it is odd that I clearly remember that I was playing close by my brother.  We were companions.  He was very involved with trucks and transporting dirt from place to place while I was more involved in building cities.   I packed the earth into buildings, fences, tunnels and roads.  I imagined details that I could never have created.  At some point, together, my brother and I decided to make a gully for transporting water.  We tried to make a route for water that ran from the top of our hill of dirt to the bottom in a zig-zag pattern that we thought looked like  a river.  One of us was trying to keep the water running where it belonged while one of us poured the buckets of water carefully into the gully.  We could never get it to work as planned and ended up with nothing but a mud puddle, much to our disappointment.  Failed projects on the dirt hill never deterred us from trying the next thing rather through our successes and our failures we learn important things about dirt and about life.

We did not know it but we were actually studying art and design, physics, chemistry, architecture, and social skills.  There was a lot of constructive play where we were building our worlds and just as much pretend play where we were creating imaginary people and their imaginary lives.  Within these two frameworks, there was constant investigation, observation, and discovery.    We studied how the mud dried overnight and how it broke up when we walked on it the next day.  We studied the properties of different kinds of dirt--the rich earth on our hill as compared to the paler dirt that was already in the yard.  We studied how water soaked down into the garden soil and how it traveled across the top of the hard packed dirt in the yard where we walked every day.  We thought about town planning including transportation routes,  location options for schools and police departments--especially the jail which we needed because we created a lot of bad guys who needed to be locked up.  We created social conflict and then managed it. Our dirt houses were reinforced with straw, sticks and rocks--rather like the Three Little Pig homes.  We studied systems for adding mud to almost everything.  Even if I could not remember that summer of playing on a hill of dirt (and I can remember it remarkably well) it was a summer of intense learning that I now believe far outpaces any classroom summer program we might have been attending instead.

I am also aware, now, that not all children would love playing in the dirt.  I can't remember my introduction to dirt but I have seen some children fall into dirt from the beginning with gleeful enthusiasm and I have seen other children who work hard to avoid any contact with dirt at all. It is easy to understand why it is a sensory challenge for some children. It sticks to the hands, the toes, the knees and the clothes. Still, I think all children aught to have the opportunity to develop a happy relationship with dirt--even the reluctant children.  Most children can learn to enjoy playing in the dirt with no more encouragement than a good pile of the stuff and a shovel.  Other children might need a little more encouragement.  I grew up with my grandmother gardening vegetables in our yard and she was never happier than when her hands were in the earth. It was a form of play for her although she called it "working in the garden" but as I think about it now,  she provided me with a positive role model for enjoying the creative possibilities of dirt.  In my childhood, grown-ups did not play much with children.  I don't remember any grown-ups playing with me, period.  But, as a child my brother and I were both told every day, weather permitting, to "go outside and play."  All that was out there was my grandma's vegetable garden, a few "outside toys" like trucks and balls, a swing set and a big yard that was not landscaped. There were plenty of bare spots of dirt.  Well, actually there were more things out there but when the truckload of rich brown earth arrived, we really noticed it.  Luckily, whatever they intended to do with that black dirt did not happen for a long time. I think the key to getting most children to play in the dirt is pretty much what happened to me-- opportunity and not too many alternatives.

I forgot to mention that playing in the dirt  or doing anything for hours outside is a lesson in biology.   Just think for  a minute about all the living things that one can find in a yard.  There might be mushrooms, earthworms, beetles and bugs, seeds and sprouts, roots and tubers, sticks and leaves, snakes and moles.  The birds are apt to be close and and smaller winged creatures are everywhere.  The dog is liable to be rolling in the dirt.  The squirrels may be digging and hiding things in the dirt.  Chipmunks are curious and likely to come investigate whatever changes are made to the dirt--sometimes while you are still making the changes.  Plants and trees are likely to be sticking out of the dirt in endless interesting configurations, textures, smells, and size.  Every living thing that is associated with earth is a world to be observed and studied for a minute or an hour or a lifetime.

Time, in fact, passes differently while one is playing in the dirt or investigating the worlds in a backyard.  I notice this now while gardening and I experienced it as a child creating worlds on a mound of garden soil.  Time can almost stand still.  Moments can stretch into hours.   Watching a ladybug  stumble and tumble while trying to climb a little mound of loose dirt is theater on a different scale and the play may last seconds but those seconds stretch out and stay in the memory forever.  Seeing a bird pull an earthworm out of the earth and then feed it to one of her new born chicks provides an momentous experience of wonder.  This kind of timeless time calms the mind and eases anxiety.  Perhaps it is this state of well-being that makes learning so easy.  Playing in the dirt allows children to experience life in a way that is hard to replicate in any other way.

Cross Posted on FunDaMental Play

5 comments:

annie said...

I just found your website and I am loving all of your insights. I am an SLP in Utah and I'm relatively new to the profession. I just started a blog of my own and would love some collaboration and feedback as I continue to try to build my skill in the field. Please visit anytime at slplearningcurve.blogspot.com Again, thanks for all your posts!

Beth Up North said...

I love this post Tahirih. We are just getting to playing in the dirt in Alex's life. 7 and not too late I hope. He was happily digging in the raised bed garden the other day, I am thinking I will get some dirt delivered so he can continue once the "serious" gardening begins.
Cheers,
Beth
ps I sent you a note on an e-mail from a site of yours... g-mail perhaps. If you can find it, great! If not I will call soon....

Tahirih said...

I wish Alex a great time on his dirt pile. Can I let some other kids know about his pile of dirt and come play with him? I think there might be some companionship possible if he has a goldmine playing option like a pile of dirt.

gamebeeonline said...

lovely game.............

العاب فلاش said...

well done