Why I Let My Daughter Get Dirty

It happens almost every day. It usually starts after breakfast with a tug on my pant leg, then an enthusiastic delivery of a pair of shoes, then pint-sized hands struggling with a coat zipper. She wants to go outside. 

It's incredible how insistent a toddler who still doesn't talk much can be. Most mornings, I'm groaning and groggy and not looking forward to the work of letting my daughter play outside. It would be easier to offer a TV show, and I know she'd take me up on it if I did. But I've made a pact with myself; just like I won't say "no" when she brings me a book to read, I won't say "no" (within reason) when she wants to play outside. Because in a screen-driven, technology-crazed world, books and nature are the antidotes. 

Bonus: Sprinkler parts can double as kid toys. Don'tcha know. 

Bonus: Sprinkler parts can double as kid toys. Don'tcha know. 

I grew up in a tiny town on the border of Idaho and Oregon on a few acres right outside city limits. In the 80s and 90s when my parents were raising kids, there weren't phrases like "screen time" and "free play"—we just played outside. Like my daughter, I couldn't wait until the moment I could get outside every day—rain or shine, winter or summer. Among my best memories are days building forts in the pasture, reading books in trees, and sledding in our neighbor's field. We biked, played in the dirt, went camping, and spent hours in the sunshine and weather.

Although you could say I want my daughter to have these same memories out of a sense of nostalgia, it goes deeper than that. If I'm not careful, my daughter could miss out on this love of nature entirely. See, I’m a millennial mom: a card-carrying member of the Safety First Generation. I'm among the moms trying desperately to find a balance between the hands-off philosophies of past generations and the dreaded helicopter parenting of today. And do you know what parents my age have started to believe? 

  • We don't have time for outside play
  • It's too dirty outside
  • The weather is only nice a small part of the year 
  • We have homework and extracurriculars to finish first 
  • Outside play isn't safe

It's easy to see why. Like I said, I groan most mornings envisioning the laundry disaster and the straight-up work it takes to let my toddler play outside. But her peers aren't getting enough outside time, and that scares me. 

Play is the work of childhood // emilyfisk.com

Research shows that kids today spend less than a third of the outside play time their parents did as children. Kids today spend upwards of six hours a day in front of screens, and they're unhealthier and more stressed than ever. Not surprisingly, our bodies are wired to respond positively to nature: green things calm us, sunshine makes us healthier, outdoor air builds up our immune systems. And kids need outdoor time even more than adults do; their changing bodies and brains crave unstructured play time to learn, explore, and develop. As a mom of a girl, I'm even more aware of this reality: studies shows that boys get more outside time than girls, and girls are directed more during play than boys are. 

"Today during outside play, I learned that dirt tastes horrible."

"Today during outside play, I learned that dirt tastes horrible."

I want Charlie to love the outdoors, not fear them. I want her to be healthy and strong, not weakened and sick out of a backward desire to protect her. I want to get her outside as much as possible.

The good news: outside play doesn't have to be a drag for parents. With a little planning and a shift in perspective, your kids can get the unstructured outdoor time they need and you can maybe even relax (hey, I said maybe; I can't promise miracles). Here's what I've found that helps me get my daughter outside more. 

1. Get Comfortable With Dirt 

When kids go outside, they get dirty. Everything got a lot easier for me when I accepted this fact, lowered my expectations, and planned for dirt. Charlie has scads of play clothes now that will be going straight to Goodwill when she grows out of them. I don't care if they get ruined, they were mostly free hand-me-downs, and they wash up just fine. As people in my hometown say, "God made dirt, and dirt don't hurt." 

2. Plan for Play 

For being "unstructured" play, it sure can require a lot of planning. I plan for Charlie to get dirty basically every day; when we bike to the river on the weekends, I put her in sturdy sandals and shorts she can wade in. During the summer, I keep a swimsuit and a towel in the car—just in case. And Momming 101 demands keeping a change of clothes on hand for all eventualities, outside play especially. 

3. Set Reasonable Boundaries 

Whatever you do to stretch yourself and let your kids get dirty outside, it still has to work for you. If you're driven to the outside edges of sanity by a dirty floor, dictate that shoes come off at the step. If sand in your car gives you a migraine, steer toward hikes more often than the beach or lake. Set boundaries for your kids and family so that outside play time makes sense for you. 

4. Step Back 

It's tempting beyond belief to hover while your child plays outside. As parents, we spend all day directing and guiding our kids, so it can feel impossible to avoid the "be careful" and "just the feet!" and "don't get wet" commands. But outdoor play isn't the only important piece our kids are missing; it's also the unstructured play component. I'm lucky enough to have a fully-fenced backyard that's completely visible from the kitchen window. When I can, I let Charlie play while I do dishes, write, or sit on the porch with my coffee. She thrives with this independence. Age-appropriately, find a way to step back and let your kiddos play. 

Outside play: pajamas optional. 

Outside play: pajamas optional. 

Someday, I hope my kids look back as fondly on their outside childhood memories as I do. And I hope they'll still join me on camping trips, hikes, and days on the lake when they're adults. Everyone needs a little outside play in their lives. 

Now I'm off to practice what I preach and steer the toddler away from the iPad. How do you get outside with your kids?