Free to be dirty.

Today I was really happy to see a discussion about mud play areas, or what we used to call a digging patch.  I had started to wonder where such things had gone.

When I first started teaching in preschool (long, long ago, in a galaxy far far away or so it seems) it was standard…everybody had a digging patch.  The digging patch at our centre was behind the shed and we let children go wild with “real” metal child sized shovels.  We would put the hose in and lots of fantastic mud play would follow.  I don’t remember having any real concerns about children getting dirty, we would wash them off and spare clothes have to be for more than just the odd toileting accident.

So where has the digging patch gone and how can we bring it back?  I believe it is due to many reasons that have nothing to do with the children. Generally, as a society, everyone has decided that spotlessly clean is what we all need.  I remember one very memorable playgroup when a group of mothers sat and talked about how often they “Gumptioned” their sinks.  I didn’t know what  “Gumption” the product was then, still haven’t bought or used it and also still wondering why a sink has to be THAT shiny, isn’t clean good enough?  Everything is Anti-bacterial and houses have big white tiles, with everything fresh, clean with throw cushions to match.  I think this change has flowed over to educational settings.  Everything needs to clean and spotless. So most families can deal with a little paint here and there or the old set of green hands from finger painting, but a full set of mud encrusted clothes could be pushing it.

It makes an educators day harder when you have to clean children up and change there clothes.  So organizationally, digging patches are difficult (but then, organizationally, children can be difficult…) and sometimes some things are just too hard…so we just don’t do them.  Digging patches make the grounds at a centre look messy, and how are we going to attract new families to a centre that looks like we just let the children dig anywhere!  As an educator and a mother, I prefer to see a digging patch (I also like to see a home corner with real pots, pans and secondhand clothes that have been donated or from Lifeline not new ones from a catalogue, but that’s another blog!)  Before thinking of all the practical reason why not to have a digging patch, think educationally.

There are very strong educational reasons to have a digging patch; digging dirt is physically harder to mover than sand, so great for strength and gross motor development.  Children can create differently in mud than wet sand, it holds together differently with all it’s very different scientific and tactile qualities. Mud is an important construction material, different civilizations throughout history and cultures today use mud as a primary construction product in anything from pottery to building homes.  You can find amazingly interesting things in dirt, one of the biggest and most profitable industry’s in Australia is all about moving dirt to get to the interesting stuff underneath…Mining.  Our food requires dirt and good management of dirt to grow and many very interesting animals live in the dirt.   The list could go on, but don’t forget it is great fun!  Most children love mud. (and those who don’t have been told from a baby don’t touch it, when their natural curiosity and yearn to learn screamed inside their head “touch and taste”…so they now don’t touch it!)

Now let’s leave education for a minute and think about our own childhoods.  What I remember is playing out the back in the dirt and being left along to do it.  I was never told “Don’t dig there or your making a mess, don’t wreck the lawn”  However, many children’s lives these days are not like that.  They spend their lives in care.  Think about your “6 til 6” children…when do they get to truly be loud and dirty?  They leave home at 5.30 in the morning and don’t get home til 6.30 at night.  Some don’t have a backyard to dig in.  When do these children get the opportunity to just dig in the dirt?

I say embrace the dirt of a digging patch.  If you can’t let yourself all in one go, try a digging box (not the same but a step in the right direction) then maybe children in the digging patch once a week (hide it behind a pretty garden so it doesn’t make the centre look too messy for the tidy people) but I truly believe when you see your children “neck deep” in dirt constructing, organizing, experimenting, problem solving and investigating their world you will see the amazing benefits.

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