Is dirt the ultimate outdoor learning tool? Our special guest blogger Julie explains her son's love of dirt, sand, and soil and the great learning experiences associated with playing with the earth.
My son, Mikey, has a love affair with earth. For three years I have watched him dig, scoop, sift, and dump earth in all its forms. It isn’t any wonder that earth fascinates him. It is the most interesting natural material.
It must be interesting because Mikey is very discerning when he chooses his play. For something to capture and hold his attention it must be mechanical. At first circular motion was at the heart of his interests. The rotational translational motion of wheels intrigued him when he was very young and he spent hours watching how wheels of vehicles work when he pushed and pulled them around. Mikey’s interests evolved from wheels to include the form and function of wheeled vehicles like loaders and dump trucks. From there you can imagine that his interests have snowballed to include all working vehicles, gears and geared machines, robots, and tools (tongs, levers, funnels, et cetera). Concurrently, Mikey’s interest in earth evolved.
Sandy beaches, the soil in grandma’s garden, and the dirt at a campground have all been approached the same way. As a toddler, he would do hours of hand work - plunging his hands into the ground, grabbing a handful and watching as the earth tumbled between his fingers and from his hands. Slowly but surely he would fill a bucket and then dump it out. Now, he works as a truck. Crawling on his knees, he presses his hands through the earth as if they are a bulldozer blade. He becomes an excavator - his arm the boom and his hand a claw for grabbing earth and moving it. He is a crusher - using his fingers to crush hard chunks into dust. Playgrounds, gardens and campgrounds all over the country have been landscaped by my son.
What makes earth interesting for a mechanically-minded toddler/preschooler like Mikey? Each teeny tiny particle of dry earth (dirt, sand, and soil) moves by itself in a pretty predictable way. It tumbles downward and can be pushed around like any other thing in the world. I’m sure this phenomenon is comforting for a child learning about gravity. The true mechanical mystery of earth is apparent when millions of pieces of dirt, sand or soil are seen together - stationary it can be walked upon but a handful let loose pours like water.
Regardless of how “mechanical” your child is, sand, soil and dirt can sustain their play for years. If they don’t obsess over the mechanics of dry earth then they can puzzle over moist, packable, sandcastle sand. They can revel in the sensorial joy of being covered in ooey gooey mudslide-esque dirt. They can go for a treasure hunt or discover soil as an ecosystem. No matter what is their preference, all children can have and cultivate their own love affair with earth.