Play Should Be a Dirty Word

Play Should Be a Dirty Word

Do me a favor. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath and think back to your childhood. Go back as far as you can. Now, what was your most favorite thing to do? You were playing, right? And chances are, it was something outside. I bet you can remember that feeling with clarity, the sights, sounds, smell. And I bet your hands, feet, face and clothes showed the evidence. Now, hold on to that should be a dirty word

When I give tours to prospective families of our preschool and tell them that children learn best through play and that is always a dirty endeavor, about half look at me as if I just cursed them out, think I’m crazy and go running for the door. “How can my child possibly be ready for school if all they do is play and get dirty!” Twenty-five percent pretend to agree with what I’m saying, shake their head in all the right places, ask a few questions here and there and leave the center, never to be heard from again. The remaining twenty-five percent have read the research, know that children learn best through play and want an authentic childhood for their child. And along with play comes the residue. When you enroll in my program, you have to have a great relationship with your washer and dryer!

Play is dirty business.

Play is essential for all human beings, and play is being systematically stripped from our children. True, authentic play is a dirty business. It includes mud, water, sand, paint, and glue. Through true, authentic play, we learn about problem solving, determination, independent thinking, impulse control, trial and error, innovation, vocabulary expansion, self-expression, creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, perseverance, persistence, curiosity, enthusiasm, adaptability, self-discipline, empathy, compassion, initiative, leadership, courage, collaboration, humility, resourcefulness, kindness, optimism, fairness, perspective, confidence, cooperation, generosity, honesty, character, tolerance … yet preschools and elementary schools are spending all their time, money and effort in doing away with play and anything messy and engaging children in tasks that are beyond developmental capabilities.

1525022_10153144421160663_8308184737386415474_n-2Research has proven that learning to read should be delayed until first grade. Most brains are not wired for learning to read at age 5 or 6 when today’s children are expected to learn, yet this is the standard in pre-K and kindergarten classes across the nation. This isn’t happening just with literacy. It’s prevalent across the curriculum. Children don’t learn about mathematical concepts from flash cards or filling out worksheets. They learn by building with blocks, knocking down those blocks and building them back up again. They learn by digging to China in the sand box on the playground, and believe it or not, they learn by getting knocked down by the kid on the swing because they were standing too close. Children are capable learners, but they must take an active role in what they are learning. Sitting at a desk or table filling out a worksheet or watching a computer monitor and tapping a few keys is not active. True, authentic play is active, dirty and involves all five senses.

If we want confident, creative and compassionate children who crush those standardized tests, then we need to make sure most of their day is filled with true, authentic, messy play. Only through this kind of play do our babies make sense of their world. Only through this kind of play do our toddlers learn about turn taking. (Notice I didn’t say sharing? That’s a topic for another article!) Only through this kind of play do our preschoolers and pre-kindergartners gather the tools needed to be successful in a traditional classroom setting.

Now, remember that feeling you had at the beginning of this article when I asked you to remember your favorite thing to do as a kid? Don’t you want that for your child too?

About Jennifer


Jennifer is a single mother by circumstance of an amazing teenage daughter and is co-owner and director of The Child Development Cooperative, a child-led, play-based preschool in mid-city. Jennifer works to continually challenge the misguided education system that is plaguing schools through consulting and training of child care staff throughout the Baton Rouge area and advocating for play whenever possible to whoever is kind enough to listen.


  1. In the very short 5 months my daughter has been learning through play, I have given up having a clean child or putting her in anything cute that I have any hope of staying that way. Her shoes are reduced to sand scuffed little wedged and I don’t think I will every get the glitter from two Tuesdays ago out of her hair, my car, or the dog. But in that time, I have watched my baby become compassionate toward others, inquisitive about everything, excited by the littlest things (especially bugs and rain), and is genuinely happy. I mean the kind of happy that she looks forward to “school day”. She “reads” me books on her own, teaches me about animals and their sounds, and sings me songs she learned. She’s not quite 2 yet and I can’t wait to see what’s she’s going to teach me about next.

  2. Jennifer, I have been dropping magazines off at your center monthly for years. I have my Masters in Early Childhood Special Ed and my sister and I used to talk about opening a center called We Play in Mud. Whenever your kids are outside I get so much joy watching them play in the dirt, banging on pots and pans or knocking down a tower of boxes. It makes me happy to see play in action.


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