Most kids of any age like playing — the work of kids — in dirt. This link from my Twitter feed pertains to the younger set, who might like the new Little Tikes Mud Pie Kitchen, http://gardeningwormcomposting.com/2011/02/23/making-mud-pies-and-playing-in-the-dirt/ But it got me thinking about my observations of kids and their attraction to dirt, even in their later years. When I was in the Master Gardeners program, I worked with youth and families planting trees in Riverside, Calif. I remember on a warm, spring Saturday being assigned to a group of teenage girls. It appeared they were from a group home, and this was an assignment or outing. Several were rather standoffish and looked at me as if they were about to tell me to get digging. I was in my MG T-shirt and sturdy shoes, with a “How to Plant a Tree” cheat-sheet draped on me like a necklace. My job was not to dig it myself, but to show them how to use a shovel, then let them at it. I was a guide.
They had been told in advance to wear sturdy shoes. Several showed up in tall wedgie sandals. To those properly dressed, I joked that they needed to make sure their friends didn’t skate just because they planned to dress wrong. One girl in sandals immediately sat down and started playing with the dirt that her friend had dug up. A couple of the others started picking up handfuls, not to throw, but to examine, or show their friends. I had to push them to finish planting. All they really wanted to do was play with dirt, and push their friends to do a little work digging.
I asked if they had done any gardening. The look I got back suggested I’d lost my mind. Some said they lived in apartments, others had parents who didn’t want them “playing in that nasty dirt,” or had a yard but it was nearly dead most of the time.
Children deprived of playing in the dirt very well might play in the dirt at 15, making up for lost time. I think it’s just the warmth of it, the feel of something new, that got this one girl going. At the least, feeling the dirt gives kids a connection to where their food comes from, to what roots must grow and tunnel through, to what gets covered by asphalt.
They were very proud of their finished job, a tree they planted in Fairmount Park. They took pictures. They tried to memorize the monument trees around it, so they could come back years later and see how “their” tree was doing. But I think the best part of their day was feeling that dirt.