When my daughter, who is now eight, was a baby she was always kept away from dust, mud and sand. Fevers and bronchitis racked her infancy. The infection-causing germs, we were convinced, lurked in the dirt.
In modern, urban India, dirt is a strange word. It sends mixed signals to parents and children. There’s a reason for that. The word equates to soil or earth in the American idiom. It permeated the vocabulary of new parents in India after we switched from British to American English. With the entry of cable television and business process outsourcing for American multinationals in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the medium of instruction shifted from the Queen’s English to that of the American TV show host. Among the many words that crept into our vocabulary — and stayed — was dirt.
The problem with this is not merely a semantic one. A few months ago I overheard my daughter and her friends converse near a sand pit in our apartment’s play area. The way they spoke of dirt was suggestive of attitudes that they had inherited from their parents, cemented by what they had learned in school. Dirt to them signified both soil and dirtiness. It struck me that our attitudes to dirt had alienated our children from their earthy roots.
The notion of dirtiness or uncleanness is central to the Indian ethos. However, our agrarian tradition equated soil to earth, deifying it as an entity that fostered life. Therefore, to equate soil with dirt in a culture where the traditional relationship with the earth runs deep can have undesirable consequences for environmental education.
As our urban spaces get increasingly insular, our contact with Mother Nature in all her raw earthiness has become increasingly diminished. Children, deprived of the freedom to play in an unstructured outdoor environment, tend to spend their weekends visiting malls or at designated classes studying music or dance, or sharpening their math and English skills. Most urban children spend their free time immersed in structured games and activities. Not discounting, of course, the long hours sunk into watching television and immersed in interactions with electronic gadgets. If there’s one thing that’s missing from our children’s lives, it’s the willful and unhindered contact with dirt.
Making the journey towards understanding, appreciating and embracing dirt should be every parent’s endowment to his or her children. Endowment, because it is a gift that most of us were free to enjoy in our childhood and one that could transform the lives of children today if the baton is passed to them.
Many of today’s parents, as children, probably had unlimited access to playing in mud and sand. Getting dirty was a big part of our growing-up years. For cleaning up afterward, soap and water were preferred to antibacterial wipes. Today’s children are deprived of that freedom and, consequently, its benefits.
There are proven benefits to playing in dirt and they go beyond merely feeling good about wallowing in mud. Bacteria in soil are thought to promote immunity. Shocking as it may sound, ingesting soil can actually be good for our children and has immense long-term benefits. Research indicates that contact with soil bacteria stimulates neurons that trigger the secretion of neurotransmitters essential for balancing mood, anxiety and happiness.
Another word for dirt
Children who play outdoors are healthier and happier. I know this from experience. My city-raised daughter used to be so nature-deficit that she viewed dried leaves and twigs with suspicion and dread. At first, I found this behavior puzzling. Having spent my childhood summers on a farm in rural Kerala, and my weekends observing frogs and insects in the countryside, I could not relate to this paranoia. Of course, I belong to that extreme tribe of parent that will encourage his child to pick up lizards and millipedes, so I took upon myself the task of introducing my child to nature. On a war footing.
Every few months, I get her away from the city for a love affair with dirt. To muck up her hands with clean earth. To revel in its texture, inhale its vital aroma, and understand and accept the fact that this is where we came from and this is where we will go.
Eventually, I hope it will translate into life lessons. I hope it will lead her to plant a tree where it is certain to grow. And to bring back a mite of life into our dusty urban balcony without the fear of keeling over to another bout of bronchitis.
Those are bigger dreams. Today I take comfort in the fact that my effort has paid off in simple ways: My daughter no longers thinks of dirt as dirty. In fact, she now calls it earth.