“A hole is to dig,” defines Ruth Kraus in the classic picture book illustrated by Maurice Sendak. My young son agreed whole-heartedly, spending every afternoon Monday through Friday in his backyard with a shovel, raising clouds of dust around himself with vigor. While I taught piano and violin lessons for several hours each day, he toiled in freedom, his only rule not to bother Mommy while a lesson was going on.
To call our New England parsonage sparse was generous, and the backyard’s barren landscape boasted more weeds and bare patches than blades of grass. As long as the five-year-old was digging, he was occupied and out of trouble, I reasoned. So the hole project was a blessing to a young, frazzled, work-from-home homeschooling mom of three little children. Each afternoon, he dug in the dirt, his sister played in her room with dollies, and his baby brother napped, while I earned a couple more dollars for milk and bread.
But while I worked hard for the money inside, my firstborn faced his own difficulties outside. Bereft of topsoil, the back yard contained only inches of light brown, dusty dirt before revealing a much heavier rocky layer beneath. For days he labored to make a dent in his project, complaining of back aches and blisters each evening when he dragged his weary body into the bathroom for his much-needed shower. Distracted by my own worries, I couldn’t offer any more help than a half-hearted reminder to clean behind his ears and rinse the sand from the shower while I swept up the trail he left over my dingy kitchen linoleum.
So the kindergartener put his own problem-solving abilities to work. Watching the cars drive by every afternoon, he realized that many of his Sunday School friends were being picked up from the church’s elementary school during his peak digging time. Washing his face and plastering on his most winning smile, he stood beside the parking lot and flagged down some of his friends’ cars to politely invite them to play outside for a few minutes after school before being picked up. His ruse worked, for a couple days later I glanced out the window to see my son leaning on his shovel, fanning himself with his baseball cap, urging his friends (each of them several years older and much taller and stronger) to keep working harder at the hole. He had put together an entire work crew of elementary school boys to dig his hole for him.
And dig they did for weeks on end, happy as a bunch of boys in dirt (ironically), intent on seeing how large a hole they could make. Soon, I could only see their heads above ground while the dirt clods and rocks continued to fly. After a while, they did turn on their diminutive supervisor and demand equal work by all, but otherwise they remained amicable coworkers. And the mothers had some free time to work or run errands, so who was to complain?
Until one night, rushing home after a late-night music rehearsal at church, my arms full of purse and Bible and music and violin and planner and head full of plans to do before bed and body so worn-out from motherhood and ministry, I cut across the yard in the thick darkness to make a beeline for the back door…and fell head-first into the three-foot deep pit.
I was not such a happy mother then.
Who could have foreseen this? I mean, seriously, who knew that letting one’s son dig a hole in peace every afternoon would come back and bite me? That night a new rule was decreed: he who digs a hole must fill it up again before supper.
The next day, the hole was, indeed, filled in, thanks to the help of the work crew. And the project resumed the following day under the new labor laws, but little progress was reported before shower time. The downward trend continued as workers one-by-one abandoned the project, until only the young supervisor remained. His own enthusiasm for the dig dampened considerably, and he soon put away his shovel for good.
Every time I see a shovel or a sparse, sandy yard or even a construction crew huddled around a hole, I’m reminded of that Spring of the Shovel, and I wish I had taken pictures and paid closer attention to the magic going on back there. Years later, I asked him if he thought he would have, had I not changed the rules on him, dug all the way to China.
“That’s silly, Mom. Everyone knows you can’t really dig to China,” he scoffed. “I just wanted to find out if there really was a hot core in the center of the earth.”
And now, the scientific community will never prove that theory, thanks to me.
There are so many mistakes I made in my early years homeschooling, but pushing my children into the backyard to get dirty was one of those things I did right. If I had it all to do over again, I’d just give them more outside play time, not less. There are so many valuable lessons to be learned from free outdoor play, lessons just as important as the book learning they will do inside.
For His invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.
Without his mother to fuss over his dirty clothes or unorthodox games, my son reveled in discovering what was farther down beneath the surface of his backyard world. When he was certain I was sufficiently distracted, he even ventured to explore the edge of the forbidden forest just behind the property line. His expedition was rewarded with thick beds of leaves, unusual flowers, and poisonous mushrooms (which he thankfully never tasted).
My youngest son put his imagination to work in the backyard as he explored fantasy lands and conquered fortified cities. Puddles and visiting ducks, tall weeds and foreign vegetation became fresh exploits to face fearlessly, no matter the danger of parental scolding or the dreaded watery torture of bath. No matter how mundane or routine or even boring life inside may be, every afternoon is fresh and free in the backyard.
2. Playing outside helps children practice observation skills.
They don’t realize they are being scientists when they watch a butterfly burst from a cocoon or trace an army of ants back to their home base or chase fireflies by the light of their butts. They think they are having fun with bugs and getting away with mischief Mom would never tolerate in the house.
One particularly soggy spring in the backyard, they watched frogs croak to their mates, herons searching for fish, and even turtles crawling from one puddle to another. They watched mud daubers building homes against the house and noted the progress of wasps building a nest in the eaves (definitely not one of their mother’s favorite projects). They’ve collected acorns, compared leaves from different neighbors’ trees, and chased brightly-colored moths through the grass. They smelled the fresh rain as it rolled into town and the sour compost as it refused to decompose quite fast enough. They dug for worms, collected insects, and buried backyard wildlife. Unhindered by adult expectation or cleanliness or rules, they just had fun—finding whatever they could around themselves.
3. Playing outside without adults increases their problem-solving skills.
By managing his own epic dig, my oldest figured out how to solve his manpower problem on his own, and then learned valuable skills of volunteer motivation, labor negotiations, and public relations (“Digging this hole is fun! We’ll be playing here nicely while the mothers enjoy some time to themselves.”). The outcome would have doubtless been much different if adults had become involved by supervising the play, trying to help, or keeping the young boys clean.
No matter how much we try to limit young children’s screen exposure and artificial book-work, the inside culture of our homes is often regulated and adult-controlled, which is as it should be. But when young children are thrust outside to amuse themselves, play together, and solve their own problems, something remarkable happens. They learn to think for themselves, to work in their own unique strengths, and to overcome difficulties. They realize their own abilities, they find their limits, and they celebrate their accomplishments. They grow up into the unique people God created them to be.
4. Playing outside away from their parents helps children develop people skills.
Without mom and dad to do the talking for them, young children learn how to interact with those around them—introducing themselves to the mail man and chatting with the neighbors over the fence. In that same dusty backyard, my precocious son began yelling through the hedge at the cantankerous neighbor man. The gentleman had refused to speak to the last several residents of the parsonage. But at last, worn down by the constant performances of Sunday School songs and cheerful greetings through the bushes, the crusty German begrudgingly answered back first with gruff “good morning”s, then with increasingly-detailed answers to the young boy’s questions. After a time, a strange friendship was formed, first over mutual interest in the growing backyard garden. Then the young boy began praying for health concerns and injuries, softening the hardened man until he began passing along small gifts of old world trinkets and fresh produce.
My similarly unsocialized middle son made it a point to introduce himself to nearly every neighbor on our block. In the process, he has learned gardening, animal care, how to play the guitar, wood-working, and entrepreneurial skills. He has prayed at the bedside of dying relatives, stood with scared wives awaiting ambulances, and delivered flowers to those in mourning. He learned who to trust and how to be trustworthy—all from playing outside.
5. Playing outside helps young children learn the value of physical labor.
We don’t think of play as work, but those hours in the backyard are the full-time job of little children. My son was never going to find what lay under the dusty ground unless he moved the dirt out of the way. He couldn’t jump in a pile of leaves until he had gathered them together from around the yard. He learned that he couldn’t get what he wanted easily—there was considerable work and sweat and time to be put into the project first.
Our technology-rich generation has life too easy. We pick food from the huge piles of produce in the grocery store, we travel quickly from one end of town to another in our air-conditioned, cushy-seated minivans. We have more clothes, more shoes, more water than we need. Life is relatively easy for our children.
Playing outside and facing difficulties, frustrations, and even failures teaches our young children valuable lessons about how life really works. Anything worth doing—even finding the center of the earth—takes a lot of sweat and sore muscles. Sometimes simple things take a whole lot longer than you imagine. And sometimes we fail to accomplish our goals entirely, though we doubtless learn valuable lessons in the process.
6. Playing outside regularly reintroduces wonder into our child’s education.
How easily homeschooling turns rote, routine, stale and predictable. Another lesson, another worksheet, another read aloud, another nap time. Yet just beyond the backdoor beckons a yet-untamed wilderness to explore, creatures to catch, dirt to dig. When we allow our child to roam free across the yard, to splash in the puddles and make the mud pies, we open up a new avenue of creativity in his life. He learns to love God’s creation, to marvel in its majesty, to proclaim its treasures. He finds new ways to think and imagine and dream.
He finds a hole is to dig.