Monday, October 25, 2010

Dirt Love

For many children (and adults) one of the biggest barriers to stepping outside and starting a relationship with nature is a fear of getting dirty. We are taught to wash our hands, and rightly so – but sometimes our concern to avoid germs leads to a near phobia of real good, clean dirt.

If you want your child to develop a love for the natural world, to see beauty and life in the wild backyard, you may first need to break down some barriers of discomfort. One of the best ways to do this is to start with small positive experiences around getting dirty. Below are some activities you could do with a child of any age – just be careful not to push the tentative child too far – better to end on a good note after a brief encounter.

Start by simply going outside. Take a walk on a nature trail. Try to make it fun, and let your own enthusiasm shine. Do you love birds? Let your wonder soar, but be mindful not to overload your young hiking companion with information that may bore him/her. Point things out, and eventually you’ll find something that also inspires their wonder. Maybe it will start as a question, “I wonder what made the hole in that tree?” If you find anything that sparks their interest, explore with them. And don’t be afraid if you can’t answer the questions.

If you find a muddy spot, look for tracks. Where do you see toes, claws, shoe prints? Lean in close to the mud to take a better look. Now, walk through it yourself and observe your own tracks together. There is a hidden message here, and it’s going to start seeping in – dirt is okay. Just the act of role modeling touching dirt will be very profound.

The next step is to find a way to comfortably navigate your way OFF the trail. The fall is a great time to wander – maybe you can find a rotten log to turn over, looking for bugs or salamanders? Getting your hands dirty in rotten logs may still be uncomfortable for some kids, but the life forms found under rocks and logs are so intriguing, that maybe they’ll momentarily forget. They’ll get their hands a little dirty, and this is dirt that brushes off easily. Good gateway dirt! Remember to show respect for the creatures you find, to carefully replace their homes, and to thank them for letting you visit.

Are your hands dirty yet? Good! See if you can keep the adventure going without a trip back to clean up.

Another activity I love is playing with clay. Find a natural deposit as you wander along a creek or stream. It’s such a fun tactile sensation to explore the way you can shape clay – make balls, cubes, snakes, turtles, the Parthenon – whatever you can imagine. The important thing here is that it is now becoming a fun, positive experience to get dirty.

As you wander along the creek bed, find a large, flat rock. This is now your palette. Find different rocks and experiment with rubbing them on the rock to create “rock paint.” You can use this to paint other rocks, your hands & arms, or for the child that is now really embracing the beauty of clean dirt, it is a great face paint!

Our lives depend on dirt. The soil and organisms that inhabit it create the foundation of our ecosystem, a place for plants and trees to grow, which we need for food, shelter, and even the air we breathe. Create time in your day today to appreciate dirt, and share it with someone you love!

Heidi Bardy- Lives with her partner in a yurt outside of Ithaca N.Y. and spends many days of the year in the forest getting dirty with children through her work with Primitive Pursuits, a local non-profit organization.

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