Never underestimate the play value of a mud pit for your children, and the relative ease for you to provide one.
It was the summer of 1993. I left Ohio the day after a tornado swept through our neighborhood, narrowly missing our home and our broken family inside it. I moved to Los Angeles with my two very young children in what became the beginning of a long and painful divorce saga. Money was tight and the price of renting a house in Los Angeles, even back then, seemed outrageous. What was I getting myself, us, into? A mud pit, that’s what.
I was finally able to secure a bungalow near Westwood with three bedrooms and a small, fenced-in backyard. My first twelve months in California were remarkably difficult, punctuated by the Malibu fires in October and the Northridge Earthquake that January. After my third force majeure, tornado, fire, earthquake, I thought maybe God had it out for me. Fitting, I thought, after I had left my husband in the worst possible way.
A year later, my boyfriend moved in and he had two children the same ages as mine. We didn’t have a whole lot of toys for the kids and even less budget to buy more. What we did have was a patch of dirt and a hose, balls, little shovels and buckets, and one modest, plastic playhouse.
Unbeknownst to me one day, the four children figured out how to turn on the faucet and were squirting each other with the hose — good fun — I thought since it was sweltering outside. Soon, that little game devolved into them directing the hose to the dirt patch until it was a frothy pit of mud. Fun! Leave it to my kids to invent a new way to play, covered with mud from head to toe.
I didn’t really care too much. When it was time to come in, I just lined them up and sprayed them clean with the hose. We all went inside and their clothes went right into the washing machine. They took a proper bath and got ready for dinner.
Playing in the mud became a repeat performance over the summer. I bought them tin pie pans and we made mud pies that we decorated with the plentiful flowers growing all around us — yellow hibiscus, fuchsia bougainvillea, and sweet-smelling plumeria. These flowers were not found in Ohio. They also made up games, dug for worms, filled up sand buckets and dangit, they were pretty sure they were going to make it to China if they kept digging.
Many years later, after I had started my own company teaching schoolchildren to garden, I started noticing research about the benefits for children to play or dig in the dirt. What I learned is that there is a microscopic bacteria in dirt called Mycobacterium vaccae, which stimulates the immune systems and has all kind of other benefits like soothing children, relieving stress and helping them to relax. It even helps ease allergies and ADHD symptoms. Heck it has the same benefits for grownups too.
There has been a lot of research on this and my take on it is that digging in the dirt is hardwired into our DNA and is healthy for us. And of course, by most estimates, homo sapiens have been digging in the dirt and growing their own food for the last 12,000 years.
In a paper written for the USDA, the Agricultural Economist, Jayson Luck, says that at the turn of the last century, just under 40 percent of the total US population lived on farms, and 60 percent lived in rural areas. Today, the respective figures are only about 1 percent and 20 percent.
What does this tell us? At one point in time, we were an agrarian society and our immune systems were attuned to that, even developed around that. And now, so many of us sit behind a desk all day. Typically, the most physical work we do is an hour at the gym. And you can buy a whole roasted chicken at the grocery store for around six to eight bucks, rendering raising chickens and slaughtering them (not an easy task I can assure you), a losing proposition.
I grew up on a farm, and since my mom is getting older and my dad has long ago passed away, she only keeps a few chickens for the eggs. She gave my three brothers and me each five acres to build a house on. While I still live in Los Angeles, my three brothers built their houses and live on the farm along with various nieces and nephews in a sort of wonderful Kibbutz-type situation. When my mom’s chickens got old and stopped laying eggs, she didn’t know what to do with them. In a perfect display of who my brothers are this was their advice:
My youngest brother: I’ll cut off their heads and you can gut them and pull out their feathers. Then we’ll put them in the freezer.
My oldest brother: Don’t do that. It’s too much work! You can buy a whole chicken in the grocery store for $8.00. I’ll shoot them and you can bury them behind the chicken coop.
My middle brother: Don’t shoot them Mom. I’ll take them.
And that’s exactly what happened. They lived out their remaining days roaming around and happily pecking in the fields for grain and bugs.
When I was growing up I helped plant the garden, weed, harvest, bale hay, clean stalls, ride horses, feed animals, and all sorts of other chores. I never had one allergy. I could bathe in a field of pollen. When I moved to the city, I developed allergies and was even diagnosed with asthma.
My mom still laughs at me because I spend money to go to a gym to stay fit, when I could just come home and work on the farm and never need to go to a gym again.
My suggestion? Garden with your kids. Let them dig in the soil. If you don’t have a backyard, take them to a park. Let them roll around in the fields. Make mud pies! Even if you live in an apartment, you can buy a bag of soil and a couple pots. Give your child a shovel and let them fill up the pots with soil. Who cares if they make a mess? You can clean it up later. When I work with school kids it always amazes me how much they love digging in the dirt. And if you’re lucky enough to have a backyard, carve out a mud pit. Your kids will thank you later. Mine did.
What was your or your child’s favorite play area?