Digging That Dirt

Sometimes I feel like I’m doing something wrong because I don’t have my kids in a thousand million enriching and educational activities. I see so many people burning themselves into raw nubs in the name of their kids’ emotional, intellectual, and physical development that it sometimes seems that none of the people involved, especially the kids, are enjoying themselves.

Sure we have a couple of kid activities on the family calendar, but for the most part I’ve let them lead the way in terms of scheduling. And my daughters definitely prefer unstructured outdoor play or else time in some cozy corner with a pile of toys.

Maybe this means they won’t be well-rounded enough to get into the “best” schools, but I think I’m okay with that. I’m not worried that my girls won’t get into Stanford. I don’t know if I want them to go to Stanford. Of course if it turns out that my children do want to go to Stanford I will be fully supportive. But I also just want them to be happy and fulfilled and find meaning in their lives. And if that means City College or trade school, so be it.

And to prove my point I’ll tell you about an amazing childcare co-operative my friends and I have created. Yes, it’s technically an afterschool activity. But it’s an activity that consists of goofing off outside and little else.

Four days a week, a brood of eight kids meets under a map of the United States in the hallway of my first-grader’s school. Parents take turns gathering the group, serving snacks, and supervising free play out in the school’s native garden for an hour or so. The parents not on duty for that day get an extra free hour of childcare.

It’s not exactly Last Child in the Woods, but then again, our kids do go to school in the middle of the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. They romp in the garden, eating sourgrass and digging for worms, and I feel sort of proud of the small dirt oasis in our urban school environment. The children play tag and make-believe. They climb and chase and laugh and fight and fall in the mud and fashion slingshots out of bushes and get hurt and cry and make amends and get punished and get over it.

It’s like the idealized version of childhood that many of us pine away for: “In my day, we just ran around until my mom called me in for dinner.” We’re not totally suburban 1960s, but close enough, considering the context.

And here’s the best part. You can do it too. Just gather some of your favorite (and trustworthy) school parents. Make a schedule and take turns. The only cost is the snacks you bring for the kids to share on the day you are “on duty.”

And the benefits are huge. Fresh air. Unstructured play. Social time with friends. Conflict management skills. Free childcare for the parents. And lots of dirt under the fingernails.

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One thought on “Digging That Dirt

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more! My childhood memories are riding bikes down the dirt road and building forts in the small wood behind our home. Though our boys will be raised in the city (and not on a dirt road) I value unstructured play after a day of school and learning.
    I like your suggestion and will consider my options as we move to SF next month!

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