Dirt Time: How Families Can Ditch Stress and Dig Into Fun

Okay! So studies support what gardeners, farmers, herbalists, kids (young ones, anyway), and chickens know: Playing in the dirt nourishes and calms our spirits. Turns out that at least one beneficial bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, thrives in healthy soil, and that this microorganism, when breathed in just through the normal course of handling dirt, activates certain neurotransmitters in our bodies (seratonin and norepinephrine) that boost our moods and reduce our stress. Here’s a fun article about this study.

Great! So working or playing in healthy soil soothes our senses. That makes total sense to me, as humans have enjoyed an intimate, companionable relationship with soil — and Mother Earth — for all but a smidgen of time in our existence. When we were hunting and gathering, when we were living closely with the seasons and working the earth, we were absorbed in this relationship.

The rich smells and sensations of the world around us speak on a cell level to us of right relationship. Our bodies and spirits know that to be in balance, we need to be in harmony with our world. The smell and sensation and taste of soil (as babies experience if allowed) all speak this language to us. We humans are truly children of the living earth. The earth is our Mother, indeed!

But are studies showing that dirt makes us feel good + our ancestral relationship with soil compelling enough reasons to play in the dirt? On a day off from school, my daughter and I discussed this very question ….

This article continues below the comic.

FoxTales 2
FoxTales comic – siblings Govan & Shell muse on dirt. By Jane Valencia

My daughter and I had the whole morning before us. I spoke to her about the article I was trying to write (this one). We made a chart of pros and cons to parents and kids playing outside in the dirt. Here are the “cons” served up by my daughter.

  • kids prefer computers (so do parents, I might add)
  • kids don’t like to get dirty (some don’t, anyway)
  • kids don’t want to do what parents want them to do (!)
  • safety concerns (“ew! the cat used this dirt as a litter box!”, etc.)

But even as she cheerfully offered up reasons why kids might not want to play in the dirt, my family found ourselves serving up plenty of memories of times spent together as kids or with each other playing in the dirt (or at the beach making canals and sand castles and drawing with sticks …). My husband Andy and I grew up in the suburbs, and we have plenty of dirt tales. Heck, all you need is a pot of soil and a little imagination, and you have good stuff coming to you.

Sunbalm Castle: Building & Fun
Sunbalm Castle: a clay pit becomes a world. The kids built walls, houses, and much more with the rocks and clay. Photo by Jane Valencia

Here’s where we’ve enjoyed dirt:

  • making a fairy garden in a flower pot
  • a pile of dirt in a side yard. All the neighborhood kids dug and designed and built in that pile, and the mom let them run the hose for 5 min. every hour to test their waterworks
  • creating a whole story, culture, adventure tale when making a village in a clay pit (see photos of Sunbalm Castle)
  • gardening. Remember that year we grew a sunflower house?
  • mud puddles. What’s not to love about them? Stomping, leaf-boat sailing, …
  • watching front loaders and other construction equipment at work digging foundations, heaping and hurling soil — yeah, you’re breathing in a heady mix of diesel and earth! Worth a good hour+ in free outdoor engaging entertainment.

… And this is just a short list!

Sunbalm Castle: So Many Projects!
Sun balm Castle:
So many projects. Experimenting with fire and cooking on tiny hearths, growing mini-kale gardens for the chickens, and much more … Photo by Jane Valencia

It’s easy to get young kids into the dirt. Less easy with older kids these days. Almost impossible for teens and adults (unless they’re gardening or doing other kinds of work with dirt). Please feel free to dive in and tell me all the exceptions, in your experience, to the statements I’ve just made!

That morning, my daughter and I decided we might make a fairy garden together…. But, it was rainy and cold, and she mentioned that she didn’t like digging in cold, wet dirt, and couldn’t we just go for a walk instead?

I considered this article. Didn’t I want to write about parents and kids enjoying dirt together??? Didn’t I want to write from my actual experience, and a sense of, “Wow, if we can do it, so can you!”?

Sunbalm Castle: Chicks
Sunbalm Castle: The chicks got their own special time in the dirt — within the confines of the walled city. Photo by Jane Valencia

But — I let go of all that. My daughter wanted to take a walk with me — that was her idea today of enjoying our nature. Playing in dirt because it reduces stress is a tidy little concept if you need to have it on hand to get you and your loved ones outside. But honestly, anything you do together where you enter timelessness and into enjoyment of the rich, enlivened world around you and of each other — is really what it’s all about.  That’s gotta relieve stress, and yes — bring in plenty of the good stuff.

How do you share dirt time with your kids or the kids in your life, or just on your own? How did you enjoy playing in the dirt when you were a kid? Please leave your comments below.

The Magic of Dirt
The magic of dirt: Dig into fun!  Photo by Jane Valencia

Magical Naturalist Skills: What Kids and the Kid In You Know

FoxTales No. 1 - written and illustrated by Jane Valencia
FoxTales No. 1 – written and illustrated by Jane Valencia. Shell and Leaves step out of the book Because Of The Red Fox into their own comic!

If you’re out with a child — especially with a young child — and you remove the shackle of clock time (so you’re wandering, no agenda, no pressing time commitment), the world around you reveals its true extraordinary state. Children will be drawn to all manner of things in the landscape, and will overlay their own bundle of stories and lore — whether it’s characters and lore drawn from books, movies, or anything else they like, or situations they’re puzzling to understand deep within. It’s like that for us grownups too, but we sometimes have to work hard to extract ourselves from our mental chatter to notice the wondrous around us.

In any case, a wander — especially outdoors (but it can be anywhere really), where you disengage from the press of time and commitment is an occasion for discovering that magic is everywhere, and that this magic is a mirror of our deepest natures. We are given enticing glimpses of our soul landscape, as well as the soul landscapes of the kids or other folk we are with.

The kid in you might point out that the magic you glimpse in what you notice in your surroundings is actually a clue to one of your “super-powers”. You could also say that the magic you notice reflects a glimpse of your gifts, your unique way of perceiving the world,  a facet of your soul’s purpose revealed, or the jewel of your heart. Choose your language.

Tiny World - photo by Jane Valencia
Tiny World – photo by Jane Valencia

Okay, so you have a “soul’s journey” aspect to your wanders. The other aspect is that in a true wander where you open your senses,and let go into the weave of the world, you enter an amazing conversation. You’re not just noticing things (rocks, plants, human-made things) that reflect an aspect of a nature, these things actually speak to your nature.

Suspend your disbelief if disbelief is starting to shout out to you right now. I invite you to engage in this possibility: that the world is alive with its own myriad intelligence (which can be very different from our human style). What if, when you notice something with curiosity, openness, appreciation, and wonder that it notices you?

Lupine Lens - photo by Jane Valencia
Lupine Lens – photo by Jane Valencia

Even before that moment of noticing: what if you set forth in a state of wonder, curiosity and open senses. Could it be that if you do so, the beings of the world wake up to you? “Alert! Alert! Here’s an awake, open-hearted, curious human!

What if, when something in your nature resonates particularly with the unique nature of another being, that that other being calls out specifically to you? “Hey! We have something in common! We’re in tune in a certain way.

What if this being is calling out, inviting you to notice, inviting you into a conversation with it? “You’re pretty interesting. I like what I see you in how you see me. Do you want to play?”

Dragon Tree
Dragon Tree – photo by Jane Valencia

That’s how plants work in offering their best medicine, in my opinion. And I think if you are reading this post this far, you probably recall times when a mountain has called to you, or a cloud, a lake or sea, a mischievous breeze — or particular human-crafted things: a book, a doll or toy, a harp, a home, a _______ [you fill in the blank].

The thing to keep in mind if you are new to this thought, or don’t play in this sandbox very often, is — if you bring the shell, plant, rock, doll, toy home — to continue the conversation. And listen to when its time to let the thing go. When you’re conversation is done, return the being to the earth, or pass it on to another human who will take time to  get to know it.

I’ll stop here today, but I want to emphatically state: The world is alive.

Here’s part of a poem I love by a 19th century Welsh bard, that underscores this idea for me:

In lovely harmony the wood has put on its green mantle,
and summer is on its throne, playing its string-music; the willow, whose harp hung silent when it was withered in winter, now gives forth its melody — Hush! Listen! The world is alive.
Thomas Telynog Evans (1840-1865)

This is what being a magical naturalist is: to open your heart, to walk in wonder, and to view the world with what Annie in Because Of The Red Fox calls “Magic Eyes”.

Go out on a wander! What do you experience when you step into the world with “magic eyes” and an open, wondering heart? Please share your flights of fancy or other thoughts about wanders, the aliveness of the world for you, and more in the comment box below!

Dragon Fire - photo by Jane Valencia
Dragon Fire – photo by Jane Valencia