Three Ways A Dirt Pile Is Better Than Toys
By Christopher Wehkamp
I just spent forty-five minutes sitting on an electric meter watching
my boys play on a big dirt pile.
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 forty-five
As with all of the anecdotal evidence I use on my blog 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 eighteen 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 three primary activities which
my boys engaged in while playing on the dirt pile. What follows is a
list of those three activities along with the expensive, wasteful toys
that they replace.
1. Throwing Stuff
Little boys and little girls love throwing stuff. 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
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 guns,
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
The boys 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 thirteen-dollar 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
I didn’t time it with a clock but my guess is this activity consumed
fifteen to seventeen 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. There were no toys to clean up after playtime ended; all action figures were destroyed and 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
forty dollars 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
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
Each ascent caused drastic changes to the geography and the landscape
of the pile. That 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
unscript- ed, all in forty-five minutes on a dirt pile.
When you write a thousand 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.
Christopher Wehkamp and his wife Sarah publish the Parents
Who newsletter with a new blog post every Thursday. They also create
original children’s audio stories to enhance family quality time.
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