It’s Okay to Get Dirty!

How many of us had moms who insisted that we not get dirty?  Maybe YOU are one of those moms.  And anyone who’s had to do the laundry knows that some dirt is just really hard to get out of some clothes.  BUT!  Part of what makes being a kid so great is knowing that it is okay to get dirty.  When fear of getting dirty prevents one from exploring, it is just a very sad thing.

During the last week of summer camp this year, we did Outdoor Skills with the campers.  The one instruction I gave our camp leaders was “by the end of the week, I want to see those kids head-to-toe dirty.”  I got some pretty strange looks.

On the next to last day of camp, I went out with the youngest group (entering 1st grade this fall) to build debris shelters (more on that in a moment).  As we made our way into the woods and started collecting branches, I heard more than one camper say “ooo – I’m getting dirty,” and they weren’t happy about it.  I finally stood up and said “Okay, everyone put your sticks down.  Put your hands out in front of you like this (like you were pushing something away).  Now bend over and scrub your hands in the dirt on the forest floor.  I want to see them dirty like this (I held up my hands, the palms of which were now quite muddy).  Now do this! (And I wiped both my hands down my face.)

This was the reaction of some of the kids:  you want me to do what?

But you can’t build a debris shelter without getting dirty, so I made sure they all did it.  Soon, we had a small competition going on – who can be dirtiest (sorry, moms).

Once we passed that hurdle, we were able to build our shelter.  Debris shelters are great, especially for kids, for not only do they empower kids to be able to take care of themselves should they ever get lost in the woods, but they also give them the chance to use their imaginations.  It might be a shelter in the woods for use in emergencies, but it might also be a fort that can be visited every day.


Ours was made by leaning one long branch against a tree and wedging one end in the tree’s crotch.  Then we placed branches and sticks along the sides, leaving the tallest end open.  The exterior was covered with debris:  leaves, sticks, dirt.  While not totally weather-proof when we finished, it could certainly provide adequate shelter, and was just the right size for a first grader.

We cheered our success!

Here are some of the shelters the 5th and 6th graders built:

So, parents, take your kids out to the woods.  Find some good stout sticks and build a debris shelter.  It is a great deal of fun, and provides your children with some useful skills.  Maybe you can also build a fire ring nearby, and perhaps, just maybe, you actually use your shelter to camp out a night or two!

And remember – tell your kids it is okay to get dirty!

(If you are dreading doing the laundry, then designate a particular set of clothes for outdoor dirt play.  Keep the pink skirts, white t-shirts, and glittery sneakers for school and good clothes, but make sure your child has something to wear that is okay to get dirty.)


About Dahlem Center

The Dahlem Center is a non-profit nature center/environmental education center located on almost 300 acres just south of the city of Jackson, Michigan. The Center is one arm of the Dahlem Conservancy, which includes land conservancy and stewardship in its mission.
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