Real life, real play


She has just started to walk and she loves exploring the outdoors. Today we took her for a walk through the fields and the forest. Usually she is in the baby carrier and watches the surroundings for a while before falling asleep. Not this time!

As soon as we leave the village behind us and start the stroll in the forest she lets me know in her own way without using words that she wants to be put down. She may well be 14 months, when she wants something, she gets it. So I take her out of the baby carrier. She looks amazed around herself and starts exploring the leaves on the ground, thrilled to discover spiders and ants. She finds a stick, bigger than herself and wants to carry it. She refuses to continue the stroll in the direction we are supposed to go.

Nicolas and I look at each other. What do we do? We have to options here: put her in the baby carrier despite her protests and continue the walk or let her lead and forget about our 1 hour stroll through the wood. We decide to go with the flow and follow her. She finds a plowed land and starts to crawl through the mud. It has been raining in the last 3 days and the soil is wet and sticky. She sinks her hands in the mud.

real play

I could stop her. I could say « No! » , « Don’t get dirty », « Don’t touch that! », « Don’t destroy your white jacket » But I don’t. Instead I just stay quiet.


This is the first time she touches the mud. She has lived only in big cities before (Beijing and Seoul) and this is the first time she gets in touch with nature so close. It’s a precious moment.
As human beings we have five (six? 😉 senses and we need them all. Children need to use all their senses when they explore the world. They need sensory experience. Touching, feeling, smelling the mud is a perfect one.
Dirt is good. Dirt is just dirt, it’s easy to wash.
When I was a child I had plenty of real, messy, unstructured exploration. I just went out with my friends and explored the waste ground and abandoned buildings close to our house. My best childhood memories are those moments of freedom. I want my daughter to experience it too.
She looks so focused as if touching the mud in this moment is the most important thing in the world. It probably is. In her world. I have rarely seen her so focused. I believe we need to respect these moments of concentration and don’t interrupt.
So I let her be.

real play

Yes, I know I will have to carry her back home in her wet and muddy clothes. We will spend one hour washing her and her clothes. I will probably get some puzzled looks from the passers-by who will notice that we are both covered up with mud. But when I see the joy and the focus on her face right now I understand that this is an important learning experience for her. And for me.

Ok, maybe the next time we will go out for a stroll, I will take with me some change clothes for her and will avoid dressing her up in a white sweater 🙂

Truth is I believe children need to get dirty more often. They need space to explore and opportunities to be in contact with nature. According to the French National Nutrition and Health Survey, in France 4 out of 10 children of 3-10 year-old don’t play outdoors during school days. This is so sad.

What are your thoughts on letting kids get dirty and experience real play outdoors?

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