Playing in the dirt

Child’s play: getting your kids outside and into the dirt

Parents, does picturing your children covered in mud make you shudder? In this article, we explore why parents struggle with outdoor playtime despite the persistent expert advice telling them to get their kids outside more.

“Mummy. Henry and I like playing in the dirt.”

“Yes, sweetheart. I know.”


We’ve all heard the message from experts: our children do not get enough outside playtime. We knowingly nod our heads in agreement. But then what?

The recent Pokémon GO phenomenon is touted for getting screen-addicted kids outside. Youth participation in organised sport sits at between 60 and 70 per cent in Canada, the US and Australia alike. And still those persistent experts tell us we are not doing enough to get our children active and outside.

Kids have a bizarre fascination with dirt. Set them on a patch of manicured lawn and their childhood fantasy play will not manifest in nearly the same ways as when they are set free on a pile of sand or, worse yet, in a mud puddle.

When presented with access to dirt, mud or sand, children will play in it. We parents, meanwhile, stand aside, biting our fingernails in angst as we unwittingly espouse that most powerful parental message: “Have fun. But don’t get dirty.”

Why can’t our children have fun and get dirty, too? There is a glaring gap in our collective mindset — a bridge we need to overcome. The solution to getting our children outdoors is found in that space between sitting on a comfortable sofa in air-conditioned comfort as we share an internet meme spouting the sentimental reminiscences of bygone childhood days where kids played outdoors, rode bicycles and fished using willow switches with worms we dug ourselves — you know, the good ol’ days — and that daunting space where we allow our children to … gulp … do the same.

The healthy outdoors

Participating in an active outdoor lifestyle is a healthy way to live and a beneficial lifelong lesson to instil in our children. We know this in the same way we know that eight hours of sleep is good for us, too much coffee is bad and antioxidant-rich blueberries are part of a healthy diet. I’ve placed uninhibited outdoor playtime in the category of luxury rather than adjusting my life to include it as a necessity.

In 2015, noted psychologist, author and journalist Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe negative social and health consequences of our children’s dwindling relationship with nature and outdoor play.

Though not yet a recognised medical diagnosis, Louv’s concept has made great gains with the recent announcement that a Philadelphia-based medical clinic has started prescribing outside play to some of its more severe nature-deficit child patients. A similar program was launched two years ago in Washington, DC and studies are under way in Shetland, Scotland to trial nature prescriptions for patients of all ages.

The Korean government is currently building healing forests for their restorative benefits, having hired 500 “health rangers” to help its citizens gain the benefits of time spent outdoors, and the governments of Sweden and Finland offer tax incentives to companies supporting “friluftsliv” (pronounced free-loofts-liv), a term that describes the spiritual and physical wellbeing that comes from spending time in remote locations. OK. Simple enough. Get outside more. Right?

Conscious parenting

Scott D Sampson, renowned palaeontologist, past host of PBS Kids’ Dinosaur Train and author of How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature, writes that experts in the multiple research fields contending with the current eco-crisis collectively “claim that greener technologies, simpler lifestyles, and restructured economies are essential yet insufficient.”

So what more do I have to do to be a successful socially and environmentally conscious parent? What mistaken message am I sending to my children that is somehow holding them back from fully realising the wonders of outside such that all these experts keep harping about it?

Acclaimed nature writer Robert M Pyle in his book The Thunder Trees: Lessons from an Urban Wildland presents us with a daunting challenge as he defines what he calls “extinction of experience”. “We lack a widespread sense of intimacy with the living world,” he writes. “Natural history has never been more popular in some ways, yet few people organize their lives around nature, or even allow it to affect them profoundly.”

Echoing Pyle’s bold sentiment, Sampson’s answer is straightforward and simple, if not logistically daunting. He tells us, “exterior transformations … must be accompanied by an interior revolution in thinking.” He further explains that “most of the external tools needed to set humanity on a new, sustainable path — knowledge, technologies and wealth — are already available. The most crucial unresolved sustainability issue, then, is a matter of mind and education rather than science and technology.”

Outdoor play, getting dirty, being allowed creative endeavour and resourcefulness in the natural world that surrounds children has to come about as part of a parental psychic change and not done at the impulse of a parenting trend.

Outside play cannot become fodder for a scheduled play date where we stand at the head of a pre-screened and safety-approved wooded trail head to hand out Tilley hats with bug hoods, travel cups filled with iced-tea lemonade, almonds and organic pre-sliced apples for snack before using the newest GPS app on our little one’s mobile to keep track of them and post about their scripted adventures on social networks. A point of order here … but I may be guilty of that last scenario.

Connecting to nature

Two weeks into our three-week camping trip and I was at war with dirt. My children’s clothes were perpetually soiled, cheeks and legs streaked with dirt. Our once pristine tarp which served as the ground sheet to our gazebo tent was stained with fallen bits of tomato pasta, egg yolk and curry dishes eaten during the past weeks.

It was in the creek that flowed alongside our camp that I stood, muttering and grumbling with frustration, ankle-deep in the icy morning grip of the babbling water, washing out my daughter’s dirt-, sand- and soot-stained pyjama bottoms while she and her brother merrily built a road for their toy cars in an inviting patch of billowy silt between the tent and firepit. They had engaged toy tractors, teacups, forks and spoons, an empty plastic tub filled with river rocks and creek water, and a hodgepodge collection of leaves, berries and twigs to serve as construction materials.

Squirting my daughter’s pyjama bottoms with dishwashing liquid, I swished and rinsed, squirted, swished and rinsed some more. I longed, physically ached, to go home to the ease and comfort of my washer and dryer.

Exasperated, I looked up to the towering spruce, pine and cedar trees of our campsite at Waitabit Creek, 15 minutes west of Golden, British Columbia in the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. In the wild embrace of the wilderness, my eyes fell upon the abounding wild roses, plump with ripening rose hips, growing alongside the juniper, gooseberry and sopalallie berry bushes.

In a divine moment of pioneer-mum inspiration, I unwittingly stumbled upon the magic of outdoors that our children so readily and inherently access when given the opportunity.

I looked to the trickling waters running over the smooth rocks and boulders of the creek and crouched down to wash the pyjama bottoms using the strapping power of nature. I scrubbed, rolled and beat those jammies upon the rocks, letting the coursing waters rinse away the offending dirt. Within moments the mud and soot stains released to reveal the tiny pink and purple strawberries of the printed fabric as bright and clean as from any washing machine.

I smiled in triumph. I may even have let loose a stifled celebratory whoop. Rocks and dishwashing liquid, glacial creek water, patience, acceptance and a little bit of enjoyment in the magic of the moment combined to give me the same experience children get when they are allowed to play outside. Enthusiasm. Accomplishment. Resourcefulness.

I had finally done it. With a small but mighty interior revolution in my thinking, I had aligned my life with nature rather than trying to wrangle the environment to suit my life — sweeping away dirt, screening out bugs, “have fun but don’t get dirty”.

I don’t like sand. I don’t like mud. I don’ like insects, wind or rain. I don’t like chaos and disorder. I hesitate at chance and I shy from the unknown.

Am I accidentally teaching my children to fear mess and risk or am I equipping them to acknowledge their own fears and challenges and overcome them to their advantage? Am I willing to do the same for myself? Am I willing to see and honour the disorder of nature and to thus connect and align with it? Am I demonstrating how, and sharing when, I am profoundly affected by nature? Or am I instead instructing them on how to control and manipulate nature … how to devalue nature?

Children don’t experience resourcefulness climbing a set of prearranged footholds to the top of a moulded plastic slide at the park. They don’t experience accomplishment when they push a button to activate the sprayer at the water park. They follow a path. They don’t forge one.

This summer we taught our daughter to drink from a mountain stream using her hand as a cup. We taught our son the difference between an edible lowbush blueberry and the remarkably similar but bitter and potentially poisonous Oregon grape. We set our children loose in a field and watched as they created elaborate structures of twigs, pebbles, leaves and curious imagination.

Playtime in the natural world incites resourcefulness — in fact, it demands it. It is my need for productivity, routine and order that is inhibiting the very tools and resources I am seeking to nurture in my children.

I have to let my children encounter nature without the burden of scripted and structured toys and games, and I have to let my children encounter some risk in their discovery, for it is there that they are able to trial their skills and abilities, test, inquire, challenge and explore.

I have to set an example of outdoor discovery. I have to take my children out into the natural world and let them play. And I have to let my children get dirty.


The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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