I had plenty of time to think about all the toys that my boys received for birthdays and holidays and special occasions and how none of them have come close to absorbing, engaging and entertaining them the way that this gigantic pile of dirt has done for the last 45 minutes.
As with all of the anecdotal evidence I use to recommend activities, your mileage may vary with your kids. But I would encourage you to take your child to a dirt pile this weekend. The one that we found was down the street where a new house is being built.
The only reason my boys stopped playing on the dirt pile is because I forced them to stop playing on the dirt pile so that we could go inside to eat dinner. Otherwise they would probably still be playing on it.
When I consider the 18 billion dollars that Americans spent on toys for children in 2014 (yes, that’s just one year’s spending on toys) I find I can’t even begin to fathom how wasteful it is, both in terms of dollars wasted and in terms of quality play time wasted on toys that only deliver very limited absorption, engagement and entertainment to kids. I’m betting that if you put your kids on a big pile of dirt this weekend you’ll see just what I’m talking about.
After careful observation I noticed 3 primary activities which my boys engaged in while playing on the dirt pile. What follows is a list of those 3 activities along with the expensive, wasteful toys that they replace.
1. Throwing Stuff
Little boys love throwing stuff and many little girls love throwing stuff, too. Throwing stuff is emotionally cathartic, it builds dexterity, accuracy and hand-eye coordination and it’s good exercise.
Most dirt piles are composed of big clods of dirt. These are great for throwing.
A big bonus is that when you throw them fast enough at something hard, they explode in a satisfying shower of chunks. This discovery hooked my boys hard. If throwing the dirt clods were the steak, the explosion was the sizzle. Mr. B and Mr. C couldn’t get enough.
At some point you might want to buy your kid a baseball, or a football, or a basketball, or a golf ball, or a racquetball or some other kind of sports ball. Until that time, rest assured that your kids would be very satisfied with dirt clods. Very, very satisfied.
Additionally, you can hold off on purchasing all manner of Nerf gun, dart guns, disk shooters, or any sort of toy that actually shoots some kind of projectile. At one point Mr. B pretended like throwing the dirt clod was “shooting a shooter gun,” as he called it.
2. Action Figures
They discovered some dirt clods with sticks embedded in them.
This finding gave them both pause; somehow these were not dirt clods but Dirt Clods, and were seamlessly transformed into creatures to which the boys imparted voices, personality and an unfolding adventure.
I watched in rapt attention, feeling like a suburban Jane Goodall, as my boys instantly transformed some dirt clods with sticks in them into something as good or better than the $13 alternative.
One of the dirt clods with especially odd roots sticking out of it became a “bad guy.” He was quickly subdued in a breathtaking action sequence. When the “bad guy” began to fall apart the boys took their time dismantling the “hero” dirt clods.
Throwing the sticks and roots as far as they could was only the next logical step.
I didn’t time it with a clock but my guess is this activity consumed 15-17 fully engaged minutes. And what were the outcomes?
No action figures purchased; that’s money saved and space saved in a landfill down the road. No toys to clean up after playtime ended; all action figures were destroyed, rendered gleeful casualties of playtime. Imagination was exercised while bodies were exercised; fresh air, sunshine and creativity.
3. Jungle Gym
Hey guys, look at this thing. Can you believe that it only costs $40 to own? Are you thinking about what an amazing deal it is?
Not me. I’m thinking about how I can’t believe this is an actual thing that actually, you know, exists.
I’m all for playground equipment and jungle gyms, especially the public kind. Not only are they free of charge, they offer great opportunities for kids to practice socializing, setting boundaries and learning how to share with others.
But I think my boys would take a dirt pile over a public playground any day.
Climbing up to the top is a fun challenge. Sliding down to the bottom is a fun mix of slippery and fast, allowing for a feeling of being just out-of-control enough to be exciting.
This activity was the backdrop and the unifying theme of all the other activities. Even while throwing dirt clods, the dirt pile must be ascended. Even while chasing the “bad guy” Dirt Clod with the “good guy” Dirt Clod, the pile must be descended.
But the ascent is enough, and the descent is enough; both are activities sufficient enough to entertain and engage all on their own. I can’t say how many times they climbed up and down, up and down in a 45 minute period.
Each ascent caused drastic changes to the geography and the landscape of the pile. Which made each descent a little different, a little bit challenging and engaging in a new way.
Each descent spread seismic shifts in the features of the pile. New sinkholes had to be explored and mitigated, new sub-surface features were unearthed and added to the escarpment.
There were sub-cycles within cycles, tiny dramas that lasted mere moments, wild-eyed wars against the laws of physics, all unspoken, all unscripted, all in 45 minutes on a dirt pile.
When you write 1,000 words about your kids enjoying the sublime wonders of a dirt pile, it feels a little bit silly trying to sum up.
Suffice to say, that our best intentions and our best inventions still pale in comparison to the wonders just outside of our window, just underneath our hat, just down the street in a vacant lot.
Your kids know this better than you do and they will be happy to show you if you give them a chance.
Put your kid on a dirt pile this weekend and learn all over again what you already know.
And please comment on this post or drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org after you do.
We would love to hear about how it turns out!