This I Believe: We Believe In Getting Dirty

Oct 12, 2017

Joan Vohl Hamilton and Abbe Hamilton.
Credit Emily Reddy / WPSU

JOAN VOHL HAMILTON:  When I was a child in the early 1960’s, my clothing fell into three categories: school clothes, church clothes, and the best clothes of all: play clothes. My play clothes were worn out get-ups that didn’t earn me a scolding if they got dirty or ripped. I didn’t generally wear shoes with my play clothes: in the spring, summer and fall, my bare feet got me where I wanted to go.

And where did I want to go? Through the fields and into the woods. High in the tree canopies. In the brook, slip-slopping over rounded, algae-covered stones. On my bike to play a pick-up game of baseball. The desired result was adventure. I was free!

Fast-forward fifty years and that little girl from the 60’s still thrives when I mow the lawn, garden, or hike in forests.

And it all started because I was given permission to look like a mess–a glorious mess–when I was playing. I believe in getting dirty.

ABBE HAMILTON: Like my mom, my most treasured formative experiences happened outside. Unlike her, I grew up in an era where unattended children are thought of as neglected rather than independent. I’m lucky to have parents who encouraged immersive play and all the jean-shredding, risk-taking and unselfconsciousness that goes along with it.

Girls will naturally find their way into mud, sweat and torn clothing. But they need encouragement, or at the very least, a lack of discouragement. I also believe in getting dirty.

JOAN: The easy solution to encouraging this kind of play is to provide girls appropriate clothing.

Then moms and dads can watch their daughters learn in these outdoor settings, and can do it with enjoyment. Parents can be close enough to ensure the girls’ safety and provide some supervision, yet not be a looming presence. Parents can decompress from their jobs amidst the beauty and sounds of nature–and their children’s laughter and excited shouts.

ABBE: Feminism offers the promise of a new, fair future for American culture. But in spite of advances, even the current progressive child-rearing culture appears to be silent on the issue of letting girls get dirty.

My mom’s and my experiences as children attest that if you seek to provide meaningful, formative experiences for your daughter, and equip her for a life of adventure, self-sufficiency and confidence, you can’t forbid her to play with icky things or to root in the mud a bit. The same goes for your son.

JOAN: If you can relate to the freedom and joy and learning that came along with your outdoor play, why not provide the same sorts of experiences for your children? Invest in those thrift-shop clothes and shoes and boots. Invest the time to find places your children can safely explore.

ABBE: Give your daughtersand sons–what they need to have the times of their lives! Having fun sometimes means getting dirty.

JOAN & ABBE: This we believe!

Essayist Abbe Hamilton works in Huntingdon for the county conservation district. Her mother, Joan Vohl Hamilton, is a retired 8th grade teacher in Massachusetts.