Getting Down And Dirty

Sometime between kindergarten and moving into my first apartment, I lost the puckish love of dirt. Reviving our camp’s nature program and dining services helped me rediscover my inner Pig Pen, and along the way, I cemented the distinction between dirt and germs. As youth leaders, we should all understand that difference and encourage kids to get dirty once in a while—maybe every day, as long as they have a chance to clean up.

Remember how awesome finger painting was? It didn’t just look good, it also felt good. And you were constantly revising the wet creation, layer upon layer. I once toured a fancy art museum with my son and listened to the guide explain to him—he was 6 at the time—that “Famous artists often revised their paintings by adding additional layers of oil paint. If you look closely at the brush strokes, you can see how some of these masters altered their tableaus part-way through.” My son replied, “I do that all the time with finger paints.” The guide’s blank expression typified how most adults view pure creativity.

Proper Hand-Washing

Distinct from creative, dirty activities are germy activities, such as sneezing and using the toilet. Of course, I understand that germs are inescapable. Our bodies are covered in them, and we transmit them to everything we touch barehanded. However, proper hand-washing technique dramatically minimizes germ concentration on our paws. This reduces the likelihood of serving as vectors for harmful bacteria and viruses that can make us and others sick. The problem is that most youth leaders do not engage in proper hand-washing, even if they know how to do it.

When I train young kitchen-staff members, I begin by bringing them to the hand-washing sink and ask them to use it for its intended purpose. (I’ve temporarily removed the instructional poster, and I pretend to busy myself with some tableware sorting while they clean up.) No one ever washes his hands correctly, even those who put food service on their applications. Typically, they rub their palms together with soap for five seconds, rinse and dry their hands, and then re-contaminate them by wiping the extra dampness on their shorts or running their fingers through their hair while waiting for their colleagues to wash their hands.

Proper hand-washing technique involves copious running water, 20+ seconds of scrubbing the fronts and backs of hands, fingers, nails, and wrists, followed by a paper-towel dry and carefully avoiding touching anything (especially one’s own face) that could introduce contaminants. The process is more time-consuming than the perfunctory wash most people attempt, but it’s much less than they’ll spend in the health center if they come down with an illness.

If you think I’m being compulsive by emphasizing the importance of proper hand-washing, just watch others at the sink the next time you’re in a public bathroom. Now imagine those same perfunctory washers being a waiter or waitress at your favorite restaurant. Or imagine them shaking your hand on opening day. Yuck, right? But I still see patrons in coffee shops and airplanes cough and sneeze into their hands instead of their elbows. Once you understand disease transmission, your own basic hygiene improves dramatically. And once you notice how many people around you do not practice good hygiene, you’ll be tempted to sport a holster of hand sanitizer on each hip.

The Nitty Gritty

But what about dirt? That’s a different story, one with an entertaining and cathartic theme. Humans are covered with a wonderful, waterproof, germ-proof organ of sensory neurons—skin. And whether you’re sliding into second base, digging for worms under rocks, carrying wood to the campfire, finger painting, kneading dough, or picking up salamanders in the stream behind the cabin, your skin will protect you. And, it will teach you every bit as much as your eyes, nose, and ears about the world around you. Best of all, getting dirty is frowned upon by many adults. Thus, it has an inherent caché that all youth—and most youth leaders—are programmed to enjoy.

Simply put—it’s fun to get dirty. And it’s much easier in every outdoor program—whether a day camp, overnight camp, or parks and rec program—to get dirty and wash off than it is to try to stay dirt-free. (How boring is that?) As long as people don’t confuse germs with dirt, we’ll all start having more fun.

Some easy, programmatic ways to enjoy the soil include:

  • Down and dirty. Run a garden hose to an open patch of dirt (free of gravel) and create some mud. Your campers will do the rest. From mud pies to mud baths and everything between, they will literally wallow in the most primeval activity there is. Cost of equipment = $0, unless yours is the one camp on the planet without a garden hose. Fun factor = 5/5 stars, with a bonus star if it’s a warm and sunny day. The post-event hot shower or dip in the lake is the icing on the cake.

  • Slip and slide. Find a stone-free stretch of grass and spread out 100 feet of heavy-duty plastic (not textured tarp, but sheer plastic) that is at least 6 feet wide. (You can get rolls of the 6-millimeter-thick black plastic sheets that are 100 feet long and 20 feet wide for about $80 at big-box home centers. That’s enough for two awesome, reusable slides.) Attach a new hose-end spray bottle (about $20) filled with biodegradable baby shampoo (e.g., California Baby) and spray the slide down. Your campers will know what to do next. Total cost = $110. Fun factor = 5/5 stars, with a bonus star if a nice muddy spot forms at the end of the slide.

  • Mud painting. This activity is just what it sounds like, and you can use the same equipment you already have in the arts-and-crafts building. For added fun, challenge campers to mix dirt and water with natural pigments. Crushing leaves, flowers, lichen, and other items kids find on the forest floor will add both texture and tint to their mud paintings. The best paper for this activity is heavy-duty watercolor paper because it won’t ripple when wet. That will add cost to the program, but it will be well worth it. And the ease with which campers can clean their brushes in a sink or stream will offset the hassle of acquiring aquarelle. Fun factor = 4/5, with a 5th star if you add finger painting to the brushwork and a bonus star if it’s a rainy day. That way, nature is providing both the ingredients and the cleanup.

  • Gardening. Certain hearty and fun-to-harvest produce needs to get in the ground in the late fall (e.g., garlic); other plants go in in the spring (e.g., tomatoes). You can let your late-May and early-June campers plant the herbs (e.g., chives, mint) that will thrive and be picked by July and early-August campers. Not only will they enjoy getting dirty, but you can make this activity accessible to campers in wheelchairs by building raised bed gardens out of fallen logs. Fun factor = 5/5 (do you detect a pattern in my self-rating system?). Cost = $50 to $100, depending on what and how much you plant. Add a bonus star if you can convince the local nursery to donate seedlings for educational purposes or in exchange for a tasteful sponsorship placement on your website.

  • Baking bread. One of the best ways to get dirty inside is by baking. And bread—unlike cake, soup, or sandwiches—requires hands-on kneading, rolling, and forming. If your program has a commercial kitchen, it’s likely that includes a stand mixer and a convection oven. Your head baker will have to supervise the campers while power tools are in play, but the real fun is when the dough is dumped on the baking table and the kids get to dig their (properly washed) hands into the Jabba-sized mound. Cost = money you’ll spend on food anyway. Fun factor = 5/5 stars, of course. Bonus star for mixing in crushed rosemary from the herb garden you planted.

  • Construction zone. Every camp has an undeveloped acre here or there. Give the kids some shovels, rakes, hoes, and spades and watch them go nuts. Add some PVC pipe for creative waterworks and other found objects (no doubt already stuffed under the maintenance shack), and you’ll be amazed at what the campers create. Forts, moats, obstacle courses, buried treasure, and war zones, to name a few. The modern, British name for this activity is an “adventure playground,” but it was first designed by Danish landscape architect, Carl Theodor Sørensen. He watched children playing on bombsites during World War II and quickly realized they were having lots more fun than on standard playgrounds. Cost = $0. Fun factor = 5/5 stars. Bonus star for repurposing objects that would have ended up in a landfill. Another bonus star for teaching your campers the Danish word: skrammellegepladsen, which translates as “junk playground.”

  • Creekopolis. An unpolluted brook is a wonderful natural playground, provided it’s not more than 6 inches deep. Children can make dams, search under rocks, and race leaf boats in the current. It has a soothing sound and provides ample opportunity to get dirty. (Anything swift, deep, or otherwise dangerous is, of course, off limits. If you’re unsure, consult your program’s aquatic director.) The possibilities are endless, and the cost is zero. Fun factor 5/5 stars, with a bonus star if bottom conditions and expected wildlife permit bare feet.

Don’t panic. Unstructured activities like these—especially ones where youngsters get dirty—usually increase adults’ heartrates. But unstructured activity doesn’t have to mean unsupervised. It never did, but somewhere along the way, the prefix “un” started making youth leaders feel suspicious. It shouldn’t. In fact, while you’re supervising (but not directing) the play in any of these dirty activities, you’ll be able to take the most memorable photos that have ever graced your website and promotional materials.

Added bonus: When your campers wash up after any of these activities, they’ll have to do some real scrubbing. No doubt they’ll end up cleaner than they ever would have, had they not seen actual dirt on their skin to begin with. Best of all, their play will have brought them in contact with the world in an immersive, tactile fashion that’s infinitely more valuable than a spotless T-shirt or a squeaky clean set of knees and elbows.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is the Strategy Director at Camp Belknap. He is a psychologist, author, and professional educator who co-authored The Summer Camp Handbook and co-founded Reach him via

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