No Playing Dirty

The kids and I made our nearly-weekly pilgrimage to our local farmer’s market, two townships over, this afternoon. The market is quite big and sells good produce from its adjoining farm plus several other local ones, and then imports things in the off season so they always have a selection. It’s a great place to go year-round, and not just for the shopping. They have a really nice grassy area with a pond, gardens, picnic tables scattered under big maple trees, and – the highlight for us – a turkey house that’s been converted to a play space for the kids.

This year, they added a sandbox behind the turkey house. My kids adore playing in sand. We haven’t managed to set up a sandbox for them in our yard yet, so I always try to pick a nice day to go get our produce so that we can spend a little time digging and dumping out at the farm. It’s the highlight of our week, really.

The sand out there is not playsand. It’s more like silt. It’s so fine that the slightest breeze will send up swirls of dust, and the kids always come out of the box looking a bit like Pig Pen. But we compensate by bringing changes of clothes, a few throw-rags for the carseats, and plenty of wipes. Besides, there’s always a bath when we get home, and dirt- unlike marker, paint, and PlayDoh- washes off quite easily.

Today, I was basking in the absolutely perfect weather while the kids dug their shovels, toes, fingers and whatever else they could find into the mound of silky dirt in the sandbox. They were already quite grubby, especially since I allowed them each a piece of candy before we left the store. Candy, as you know, attracts dirt the way perfume and porch lights attract bugs. DD1 looked like she had a dark brown moustache. DD2 looked like she had dipped her hands into milk chocolate, and then tried to wipe her mouth with them. Lovely.

As I was noticing the shabby state of my children’s skin and appendages and clothing, a perky little girl came running out of the turkey house’s back door. This girl did not have a dirt moustache, or pair of dirt mittens. She didn’t have any dirt on her at all, in fact. She stopped when she saw the girls perched in the sand box. There was a definite sneer on her face. I wanted to punch her, since she looked a lot like a girl I remember from childhood. That girl also had a perpetual sneer and, in fact, I did punch her. But this wasn’t my fight. Not yet.

The girl came bouncing over to the sandbox. She peered in at DD1. She was obviously a few years older.

“What are you doing?” she asked my older daughter.

“I’m playing in the sandbox, with my sister!” DD1 piped up. She stopped filling her bucket with dust and looked over her shoulder at the girl. “Want to play with us?”

The girl made a face. “I’m not going in there,” she announced. Good old DD1 just shrugged. More for me, it seemed like she was thinking. I was glad she wasn’t bothered by any of it.

The girl’s younger sister, younger than DD2, wandered over a few minutes later. Their mother was close behind. As soon as the mother saw the sandbox, her plasticky fake smile faded. It was quickly replaced with a look of utter horror. A sandbox! I heard her inward gasp of terror.

The mother rushed over to the younger child and guided her away from the evil sandbox. I could practically read her thoughts, and I’m not the least bit telepathic. There’s not enough Tide in the world to convince me to let my children play in the dirt! I’m sure that’s what she was thinking. That, or maybe, What the hell is wrong with that woman, that she’s not wiping those kids down with Purell? She should be scrubbing that horrible earth off of them right this instant. Imagine. Someone getting themselves dirty and thinking that it was fun! Oh, I need to get out of this nature-place. My shoes are getting contaminated from walking on grass. Shoes aren’t made for walking on grass. They’re made for walking in malls. We had better get the hell out of here before a bug lands near us or something. Girls! Girls!! Back to the car this instant!!!

Yep. I’m pretty sure she was thinking that, especially as I picked up the half-eaten apple DD2 had dropped on the ground. I looked at the chewed side, brushed it off a bit, and handed it back to DD2, who happily took a bite. I am pretty certain there was an audible gasp that came from the backside of the turkey-house at that moment.

Anyway, the girlie girls and their mother left, so we had the sandbox to ourselves again. A few minutes later, two more girls came over. They were about the same age as my kids, about 3 1/2 and 2, and much friendlier. The older girl took her shoes right off and came into the sandbox, but stopped as soon as she realized that she was getting dirty. She was standing there, arms in mid-dig, looking down at her darkened feet. Her sister peeked in from over the edge of the sandbox, but didn’t come in.

Of course, their mother came following behind, and there was another stifled gasp from the back door of the turkey-house. “Mother!” she whispered fiercely, “there’s a sandbox back here!” The grandmother’s head appeared next to her daughter’s, and they conferred about the best course of action to take to keep their girls from getting Dirty. Eventually, the mother just called them.

“You’re a tricky girl,” she told her older daughter as she reattached shoes on the now-dirty feet. “A tricky, tricky girl.” She guided them back up the ramp that led back into the turkey-house. They left shortly after that.

I felt really bad for these kids. There is nothing more wonderful about childhood than the freedom to play uncensored, and it was obvious that these kids had been repeatedly drilled with YOU’LL GET DIRTY messages. How sad that a child would stop herself in the middle of exploring a sandbox to worry about being dirty. Who said getting dirty was a bad thing?? Safety issues notwithstanding, kids should be allowed to explore their world. They should particularly be allowed – even encouraged – to explore the outdoors. In my humble opinion, young kids should be sweaty, dirty, and bruised much of the time. Parents should accomodate this by carrying a change of clothing and relaxing their standards a bit.

I also felt bad for the mothers. Is there such a high level of expectation for appearance in our society that these women physically wince at the prospect of their kids getting dirty? And who ever on earth drew the parallel between Dirt and Germs? I would rather sit in a dirty mudbox than on a chair in a squeaky-clean hospital ward. Guess where there are more germs?? Hmmm???

Of course, there are times and places to be clean. And that is also a lesson that kids need to learn. But, just as the country singers pine about How can I miss you if you never go away, I find myself wondering how kids will ever understand what clean is if they never have a chance to get dirty.

Rest assured. My children know exactly what getting dirty is. And we’re working on learning about clean, too.

Meanwhile, take note that the [we’re masters of stating the obvious but we use big words so it sounds important] scientific community is encouraging parents to give their kids more outdoor time. They’ve suggested that playing outside can actually help kids with ADHD, and even coined a term called Nature Deficit Disorder, suggesting that its perils can be avoided with adequate doses of outdoor play.

Unfortunately, no one has communicated to these parents yet that outdoor play does, indeed, involve a certain measure of Getting Dirty. I should think that the detergent and soap companies would be all over these scientific breakthroughs. Imagine the marketing spin you could put on it. “Tide, Specially Formulated For Outdoor Dirt.” “New Cheer with Anti-Bug Enzymes. Guaranteed to Keep The Outdoors Outside of Your Clothes.” “Johnson & Johnson Playtime Bubbles. Soap Formulated for Natural Nature Removal.” Etc.

The soap companies could even get in on the PSA act. They could do some television spots of kids playing hard on the playgrounds, in the woods, even in sandboxes, and show the happy parents scrubbing the dirt off of their offspring’s blissful, smiling faces afterwards. Lots of product placement to be had there. I think it has great potential.

But first, and foremost, parents have to be convinced that it’s okay for kids to play and get dirty. This clean-at-all-costs bit has to get chucked out the window before kids are even going to be allowed into the sandboxes and dirtpiles of the world. So, until dirt becomes fashionable again, my kids will be in the sandbox. They will also have all the shovels. I know they’ll be happy to share, though.

Won’t you, girls?

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