He's In Dirt. And I Don't Care.

I grew up playing with dirt. I grew up lifting rocks, collecting salamanders, crawfish and wooly bears. My nails and hands were always filthy. I was constantly outside digging and exploring the woods around our Central Pennsylvania home. I loved the outdoors, which is why I am really itching to get out of Brooklyn and find something a little more environmentally satisfying for my son. Plus, I think I’m making poor decisions as a city-dwelling mama.

Yesterday I took Em to the park. I take him to the park every day at least once. Our afternoon jaunt usually consists of some exploration. I wrangle him into some shoes and I let him run around a bit. He always goes straight for the dirt. It doesn’t matter if it’s a foot-wide patch of dirt surrounding an out-of-place tree or a bigger patch worn down by soccer matches. He will find the dirt. He loves dirt. He loves picking up sticks and pieces of bark. He carries them around like souvenirs. It’s adorable really.

I generally try not to concern myself with how other parents raise their children. Unless it directly effects me in some way, it’s none of my business. And I should hope that others aren’t judging me for how I raise my own. But sometimes I have to concern myself with what I’m doing when dealing with other families. It’s the whole social contract thing. If my son is playing with another child, I should keep an eye on what he’s doing and how they’re reacting to what he’s doing. I won’t lie. This is very difficult especially for someone like me who spends too much time worrying about what others think. And it’s becoming increasingly more difficult as he gets older. This is perhaps the most trying aspect of having a toddler for me so far—figuring out what the other parent is thinking and if I should react.

Yesterday Emory was running around with another little girl. She was probably five months his senior but smaller in size. They were playing with her rubber ball. He stopped every now and again to pick up sticks in the patch of dirt surrounding the tree. I let him. I figured that since the little girl’s guardians where letting her play with a rubber ball that had been all over the dirt and pavement, letting my kid play with dirt while playing with their little girl was OK. At one point, a bit nervous about the situation, I said, “Em, why do you have to play in the dirt all the time?” (Incidentally, it’s funny the number of times I ask Em a question which is really meant for the person listening in. But that’s a post for another day—”talking through the baby” is what we call it.)

The girl’s guardians shrugged and said, “He’s a boy.”

So this continued. Em picked up dirt and sticks and giant pieces of bark as the little girl teased him with her rubber ball. He’d touch her face with his hands, and her hands to his. There were a few times Em would grab the ball and try and put it in his mouth. I would snatch it up right away and wipe the spit on my pants.

“Em, do you have to put everything in your mouth!” I said.

“He’s a boy.” They shrugged.

Fifteen minutes into our spontaneous play-date with complete strangers, the little girl bent down and picked up a handful of dirt. Her father ran over and lightly slapped the top of her hand. “NO! CACA!” He said.

Realizing the error of her ways, she immediately dropped the dirt, sticks and bark, which Emory proceeded to collect. I mean, who would let perfectly good dirt go to waste like that? Not my kid.

I need to have another child. That way, I can let my filthy children run around, eat dirt, slobber all over one another and I won’t have to worry about whether I’m poisoning someone else’s child.

I’m gonna breed me my own little filthy family.

Do you let your little ones play in the dirt at a public playground? How do you teach them not to? I can’t figure this out. I realize that city dirt can be questionable, but how do you keep a toddler from playing in the dirt? You’d have to keep him or her inside all the time. I can’t allow for that. He simply has to get outside time. But I can’t stop him from playing with dirt either. Am I not being cautious enough while parenting and living in the city?

Parenting is physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. That’s all there is to it. (But it’s awesome too!)


  1. I happen to be one of those people who doesn’t love for my kids to get dirty. It’s not that I think it is wrong or harmful, I just don’t like to clean up the mess. I see no reason why you shouldn’t let Emory play in the dirt if he enjoys it and you don’t mind the mess. I wouldn’t judge anybody for letting their kids get dirty while playing, in fact I would think to myself that I should be more open to it than I am presently.


  2. Of course we let our son play in the dirt! And I cannot imagine how to stop that, nor why one would want to stop it. Perhaps because we live in the burbs, where we have our own patch of dirt (yard) I never realized that there are parents who don’t let their kids play in dirt.

    In fact, when our son was a bit older (but not much) and he started playing “soccer” the dirt/mud patches in the field were far more interesting than the game.

    Dirt = fun. Fact of life.


  3. the girl i babysit for is also like that with the sticks and the dirt. she also enjoys picking random interesting pieces of garbage off the floor (bottle caps, lost hairclips, etc.) so i tell her she can pick up as many sticks as she wants as long as she doesn’t pick up garbage, and it works.


  4. Oh, erica, he loves the garbage, too. I do the same. I figure sticks and shit are much better than broken bottles, balloon pieces, and discarded candy. But man! I have seen a lot parents take their kids (sometimes screaming) away from the dirt at the park.

    I figure it’ll help his immune system. heh. That’s what I’m telling myself anyway.


  5. Oh, I STILL talk through my kid, and she’s almost three! (though now she can actually try to answer my ‘rhetorical’ questions) I’m sort of in the same boat as Megan—I don’t let my daughter go hog wild in dirt/mud because I don’t like to clean up the mess, but most of the time she still gets dirty to some degree anyway (and I don’t care if other people ‘let’ their kids get dirty while playing, since it’s pretty much an inevitability). Especially if there’s a sandbox around, and especially if it’s rained in the past 24 hours :).

    I really don’t think you can stop your kids from playing in the dirt, honestly. And I certainly don’t think you can equate dirt w/feces (well, ‘caca’ in this example).


  6. Incidentally, every time I hear the word “Caca” I think of Caveman. Weird. But true.

    There could very well be feces in the dirt around the trees here, but there’s probably feces in almost every nook and cranny of this city. It stinks of feces in Greenpoint regularly. We live blocks from the sewage treatment plant and it’s overloaded and you can smell the sewer almost every day.

    One might move from here entirely if they’re afraid of feces.



  7. You’re right about the immune system thing. All these kids who don’t get down and dirty and germy and slimy are the ones who get sick from the first day of school on. My kids were dirty and germy and snotty and I never used antiseptic gels or clorox or wipes and they are now 14 and 11 and in all those years I can count the number of times they’ve been to the doctor (excepting yearly physicals, of course) on one hand. People are way too germophobic today and immune systems are being compromised by not getting the exposure they need to thrive.

    Em is adorable, by the way.


  8. Dirt=Good Immune system

    Also? Less stressed out mommy. :-)

    I freaked my niece out last week when she was visiting by eating something off of the floor. Heh.

    I still like dirt.


  9. Dirt doesn’t bother me. It’s WHERE the dirt is that keeps me up at night. Many city parks were built on land whose previous use is suspect. Then there are all the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in city parks. I totally understand your desire to find a little house with a yard somewhere. I don’t mind if my boys eat the dirt in their own yard. At least I know what was located on this land as far back as 1890. Heh. Yeah, I do tell them to keep in mind that outside is where all the animals go poop. That works on my 6 year old most of the time. My 22 month old doesn’t seem to care. :-)


  10. Parenting is rewarding, yet draining in all possible respects. In time, you will no longer care about what other parents think:). When I look back, (as a mother of a 2-and-a-half-year-old girl who is very very sociable) I really have to say that I admire my parents who never even once passed on any stupid judgments about other kids (I tend to, although I try hard not to). Kids make me realize how different people/parents really are. About the dirt – let Em enjoy it while he can – when he’s 10 or 15 he’ll no longer care.
    Good luck and love to Brooklyn from the suburbs of Kranj:)


  11. Don’t stress yourself. Dirt is…dirt. It washes off. Save your anxiety for the big stuff. Like mud. ;-)

    Seriously, though, like you, I grew up with dirt and bugs and trees and grass and that sort of thing. I totally understand the particular joy one gets from interacting with dirt.


  12. Becky: See, that’s the sort of thing that makes me feel increasingly more selfish for staying here. I want Em to play and hang out in parks, get dirty, whatever. But in doing so, I could put him in harm since what you say is true. (On top of that, we live on the biggest oil spill ever to take place in the US.) I feel to some degree that to stay here AND keep him away from the outdoors because of the land issues is just selfish. You know what I mean? I hope that doesn’t make someone angry. In the past when I brought up what someone else said regarding living here with a child and being selfish, I kind of took a beating for it.

    But I think that’s where I sort of agree with what that person suggested.

    Perhaps I’m trying to not feel so selfish by letting him play in potentially filthy dirt? And by filthy I mean manmade filth?

    We need a house with a yard. That’s all there is to it.

    I’m babbling.


  13. I wonder if in this case it was a gender stereotype issue – boys play in the dirt, girls don’t. That’s the message they seem to be sending by making comments like “He’s a boy.”
    I don’t think you should critque yourself too much against other parents. They don’t have “the secret” to successful child rearing either.
    Of course, I have no first hand experience. I fully expect to be a nut when I have my kid (5 weeks and counting).


  14. I don’t have a problem with my son playing in dirt, sand,grass etc. As long as he doesn’t eat it…I took too many biology courses in university to be comfortable with that! I guess the only time I would drag him away from dirt is if we are going out somewhere where I would like him to be clean!

    I guess part of the issue for me is that he plays in dirt, bark mulch, picks huckleberries and eats them, picks grass etc. at daycare during the week, so I am a bit more relaxed, as I know he’s done it a lot!


  15. Somehow I deleted my own comment approving another. Oops.

    The gist was repeat of the previous, so I won’t write it again. But, Nora, I wanted to add that this isn’t the first time and it’s not only with little girls. I saw a mother tell her son, “Don’t touch that dirt! Dogs poop there.” He cried.

    And then others don’t let them near the grass because of potential chemicals. I guess I need to worry more or something. Or just get the hell out of here. heh


  16. I wonder if their daughter was “just a boy” they would have let her play in the dirt. The fact that it’s okay for your child seemingly because he’s a boy doesn’t make any sense.

    Children of all genitalia have immune systems and desires to create mud pie and then wonder if it will actually taste like pie just because they say it will. Fact: it doesn’t.


  17. Yet another reason why we need to get together- Willa would happily play in the dirt with Em. and I would encourage it.


  18. I’m glad for the title of your post – you shouldn’t care! Let’s keep in mind that we adults enjoy things like gardening, soccer, hiking, working on our cars/bikes, home construction projects, and ceramics. All of these things cause our hands to become dirty and grit to build up under our fingernails, but they are an outlet for energy and creativity. It’s a good thing that Emory doesn’t mind getting dirty!


  19. I say let him play! My almost 3 y/o LOVES the dirt. He has learned not to eat it, with a little training, but he loves to put his hands through it and sit in it and even put it in his hair. I don’t mind the mess and I know he’s had good time! And I don’t know if the “dirt=higher immunity” is a myth, but Evan has been sick 100% less this spring/summer than last summer where he didn’t play with dirt as much. Even his daycare lets him play in dirt because all the toddlers/preschoolers love it! The filthier the better! :)


  20. Um..Gage eats dirt daily. He eats old crap that he finds in our compost pile…he eats dog fur…he eats grapes that he finds under the couche…and he’s remarkably healthy and well adjusted. We, as a society, are so freaking obsessed with germs and antibacterial stuff that we’ve created a super-race of kids with allergies and asthma. Dirt is actually probably better for Emory than half of the shit that is sold in the grocery store.

    Gage will come eat dirt with Em any old time…


  21. Mihow, let me just say, a mom I know, while walking through her own nice neighborhood with her children, will not let them touch most anything. It’s constantly, “don’t touch that, it could be poisonous” (it’s a bush) or “don’t touch that, it will hurt you.” Yeah. That’s understandable to a kid. The kid may develop some serious germ phobias is all I can think about. Or be afraid to leave the house altogether. Now, like you, I do not consider myself to be a judge of parents. But c’mon. If you can’t touch anything and explore your world, what’s the point? Might as well stay inside and watch some crap on TV. So go ahead, say yes to a healthier immune system (I agree with others on this), don’t worry what other people think, and let that adorable boy of yours play with dirt. My mom, a nurse, always said she wasn’t afraid of touching much of anything as long as she washed her hands afterwards. And whenever I was worried as a little, little kid about something odd I might have consumed or licked that might hurt me, she would say, “you didn’t have enough of it to hurt you.” I have taken many a chemistry and biology class and know all about gross things, but our society has become way too phobic.


  22. Delurking here to raise my hand, stand up and finally say, “I don’t care about dirt either.” Phew. And my little guy is only 10 1/2 months old and already loves all things natural. And by “natural” I mean everything he finds on the ground. Dirt, sticks, rocks, pine cones, leaves, other questionable things…and I say, let them have it! The only problem is that I’m also too worried about what other people think, but I’m working on it.


  23. I didn’t worry to much unless my kid was trying to pick up cigarette butts or something like that. Who has ever heard of a kid having some horrible illness from getting some dirt on their hands or even in their mouth? I always thought those parents who ran across the playground screaming to knock the dirt from their kid’s hands were crazy. It’s just dirt. I worry about chemicals, not dirt. Now chemicals in the dirt, that would be bad…

    I’m personally a little averse to dirt—just don’t like it from a tactile sense. I was the kid who stayed inside doing crafts and ALWAYS wore shoes so overcoming my own discomfort with dirt has been harder than dealing with her enjoyment of it.

    This summer Annie’s summer camp went to Mud Mania in Scottsdale. Apparently, it is an annual week long mud-fest where kids roll around in giant mud pits in 110 degree heat. Sounds fun, eh? I was not sure how Annie would handle this, she has a love-hate thing with actual mud on her hands or face. It sounded pretty much like my worst nightmare and I was glad I wasn’t going. She had fun, didn’t get herself covered in mud, though. I saw pictures, and kids had mud from head to toe, in their ears and underpants and everyplace else you can imagine. And no one got sick unless it was heat stroke.


  24. She’s bigger now but my little girl used to pick up sticks in the park, that no doubt dogs had chewed, and put them in her mouth, stones were her thing to, as many stones she could pick up and shove in her mouth and sometimes swallow…i never worried about it otherwise going to the park wouldn’t be fun.

    I know exactly what you mean by other parents and their decisions, but in a perverse way, i quite like watching their reactions, believe in yourself! My little girl has just stopped wearing nappies and while other people bring all the paraphernalia of portable potties and plastic bags out with them, she copies her cousins and wees standing up, against trees, this doesn’t really happen in London and i get stares, maybe disapproving i don’t know! Don’t worry about the dirt thing, the more the better!


  25. My son is 8 mths old. I don’t let him eat dirt or grass etc, but I let him touch all he wants. I don’t stress dirty fingers going in his mouth or him swapping saliva with other children. That, in my opinion, is just too much to stress over. It’s going to happen. But he can learn not to eat things outside and he is, rapidly, learning what “no” means. Even though a little grass won’t kill him, he could very well put something in his mouth that could.

    But to play in it? No big deal! It’s all part of learning and exploration.

    And it’s not a boy thing. I was a filthy little child too! My husband won’t even sit in the grass because he thinks it’s “dirty” and has “icky bugs”.

    Liking to explore has nothing to do with having a penis! :P


  26. I have a 15 month old daughter – with a baby boy on the way – who likes to get into everything. As long as it’s not something that will bite or cut her, I generally let her. We don’t live in the city, so maybe I don’t have a lot to add to this – except I’ve tried to be laid back about the whole germ thing. They’re just out there and if I tried chasing my little girl around everywhere Purel-ing her hands and keeping her clean I would drive myself and her nuts.

    I’ve had friends ask me how I can let our dogs lick our daughter or why I let her feed herself and make a mess and I always tell them I’m parenting how I see fit – and I think my little one is all the happier for it.


  27. Dirt? Pffft, I remember playing in mud, making mud pies, playing in the horse and pig pens when I was little….I feel this is a contributing factor to rarely ever getting sick as an adult! :P


  28. (1) I have nothing to add to the dirt comments, except I am Pro Dirt and I vote.

    (2) Emory gets more adorable every month!

    (3) My first is 4 months old, and I am just learning to navigate the whole our kids are interacting so we have to talk to each other thing. I feel totally lost at sea during these interactions, like the other parents know something about some social contract that I don’t know. And I also talk through my kid all the time.


  29. Anthony zooms all around the parks in our neighborhood picking up stay bits of this and that. I take away the bottle caps and cgarette butts, but dirt is dirt – seriously, how are you going to stop them from exploring? I learned to get over it when we first took him to the beach and he about ate his weight in Jersey Shore sand.

    Right now it is all about warding off immeadate danger and hazards. Viva la one year olds!


  30. I’m thinking the dad may not care if the girl picks up dirt, and that he was really preempting her next move – putting it in her mouth.

    I remember making mud pies as a kid and trying to convince my brother they were chocolate and he should have a taste.


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