My friend Kate gazed out at the homes in her new neighborhood as her husband drove. Each yard was neat and perfectly landscaped, complete with swept walkways and expensive playground equipment--one set after another as they passed, a kid’s heaven, she mused. Clean cars were parked in the driveways. Behind those big front doors Kate imagined tidy rooms and families with organized lives.
She sighed. Theirs was not. Decidedly not. The move was expensive—both emotionally and financially. Their lives were packed into boxes and shoved aside until Kate could find time between needy kids and laundry to sort them. The kids missed their old neighborhood where their friends lived and they were all too noisy about it. The five-year-old twins were clingy, and the three year old wore his rubber boots and coat continuously, even when he slept, because he was panicky about being left out, left behind, and felt too slow to keep up. Life the past few weeks felt more like squatting in a refugee camp than the big move to a happily-ever-after house. To top it all off, they could not afford to do any landscaping until fall, and that was 6 months away. Instead, they had a backhoe shove the dirt aside in the backyard to make room for the playground equipment they were saving for. It made a small mountain of dirt about as attractive as a clear cut in a forest of fine yards. Kate tried not to think about it.
One breezy afternoon after three straight days of pouring rain, Kate shooed the kids outside so she could get some work done. They protested mightily in three-force that there was nothing to do! One look at their mother’s face made it very clear they had no choice, but to figure it out.
‘What did your face look like?’ I asked her. ‘Like this,’ she said narrowing her eyes and pursing her lips into one straight line. She looked exactly like my own mom who every single summer day while I was growing up opened the back door with one arm and scatted my brothers and sisters and I Out! Out! Out!
And Kate’s kids did figure it out, in the wide open resourceful way of all children left to their own devices: they made mud pies from the dirt hill in old pans and laid them in the sun to dry. Later one of the twins raced breathlessly into the house looking for trucks. “We’re making a mountain pass!” she declared. Kate peeked out the window to muddy boys industriously digging a road with spoons for their trucks on the side of the dirt pile. She rummaged through some boxes in the garage and found a hand trowel, a hand rake, and an old weeder with a notched end. Kate put the tools in a bucket, traded them for the spoons pilfered from the kitchen and went back into the house where she had several hours to make a house a home.
Over the course of the next several weeks, the kids could scarcely wait to throw themselves outside to the dirt pile. Kate bought hand trowels and buckets for everyone. Neighbor kids began to sidle over to consider the play, attracted by shouts of Watch out! and Hand me that shovel! Then they dug in themselves, offering new ideas and plans for caves to park the trucks. Kate met the Moms at the door and apologized ahead of time for the grubby state their children would return home in. Most parents were good about it. Some tried to ban or limit their children’s time there, not knowing that there are few rules and abundant joy in dirt. Kids know this better than anyone.
It didn’t take long before Kate’s home became known as The Dirt Pile House, a name she had mixed feelings about at first, but learned to love. It made her reconsider all those expensive playground sets. When she thought about it, they were always empty. In fact, she couldn’t ever recall seeing kids playing on any set in any neighborhood.
The family settled comfortably in the house, the kids enjoyed commanding the biggest heap of fun in the neighborhood, and the three year old took off his coat. In the end, they kept the dirt pile. Best of all, the money saved up for backyard landscaping and the pricey wooden jungle gym was spent more wisely on a family trip to Mexico that winter. It was the sweetest trip ever.