Over the weekend SEEC hosted a program about pollinators for the National Museum of Natural History. Included in our offerings was a planting station. I wanted children to think beyond the pretty butterflies they see outside and connect how pollination impacts our everyday lives. I was excited when I was given the green light to include real dirt as part of our activities but I’ll admit to being concerned about how caregivers would respond to their children getting dirty.
As a mom, I didn’t think twice about my girls getting dirty. But awhile after I started working at SEEC, a colleague gently reminded me that I should not assume that all caregivers felt the same as me. Since then, I always put out smocks and kept wipes nearby. I also try to provide a variety of options for play so that caregivers and children have a choice in the type of activities in which they engaged.
While we want to be respectful of caregivers and their feelings, SEEC also feels it is important to share the benefits of play and especially playing in dirt. If we can share information with caregivers in a thoughtful manner, we hope to educate them about our methodology without making them feel like their perspective doesn’t matter.
So what are the benefits of getting dirty? For one, getting your hands into the dirt can be great sensory input. Many children delight in the feeling as dirt falls through their hands. This input allows them to relax and engage in their environment naturally. Playing in the dirt also offers children infinite imaginative possibilities. I know many of us have memories of making mud pies outside – dirt and nature can supply so many opportunities for play. Getting dirty also allows a child to connect with nature and these early experiences provides a foundation for a future appreciation and connection to the environment. Not only does playing in the dirt help child develop a conservationist attitude, it also encourages their sense of exploration and wonder. (Read more about the benefits of nature play.) There is also evidence that dirt can be good for us and actually strengthen your child’s immune system.
In the end, I was pleased that so many caregivers embraced our planting activity. Even though we were inside, many families embraced the experience. My personal highlights were an older child who reveled in the feeling of placing the dirt on her lap and a toddler who focused for close to 20 minutes on moving the dirt out of the container and onto the tarp. I so enjoyed watching how they both engaged with this playful work.
As we come up on our seminar about Play: Engaging Young Learners in Object Rich Environments, we wanted to take the opportunity to look at how our classes are playing with dirt. As always, we would love to hear your dirt stories too.