Core Principle Series: Work, Play and Get Dirty!

Contributed by Chris Hattich, Farming Teacher at Stone Bridge School and Garden Program Educator at Vichy Elementary School and Bel Aire Park Magnet School

As a child, my family owned a small farm so most weekends were spent feeding livestock, flipping compost piles, weeding the garden rows, trimming the orchard, etc. In those free moments between work, I climbed trees, traipsed through the creek, wandered through the tall grass in the pastures and ate carrots straight from the soil. Lunch was often eaten with hands that were, at best, marginally clean from a hasty swipe across my dusty jeans. In short, weekends were made for getting dirty. As soon as I began my career as a Garden Educator though, it became clear just how much I had taken for granted my own childhood opportunities to get dirty.

Can we just dig a hole today?” asked one of my fourth grade students as we huddled together underneath the makeshift overhang of our garden classroom. “Can we … just … dig a hole … today?” I repeated back like some perplexed mynah bird. “Yeah, just dig a hole,” the same student replied, this time with a greater degree of confidence that his request might actually be considered. Being a firm believer in allowing student interest and inquiry to help drive programs, I was all in.

Over the next forty-five minutes, a mixed bag of amateur excavators began to emerge. Some students simply dug for the sake of digging, engaging in the all-consuming quest to discover what was lying just one scoop deeper. Others sifted through every shovelful, painstakingly sorting and cataloging their many treasured finds. A lucky group even unearthed patches of gray, tacky Carneros clay which they eagerly crafted into figurines, cups and bowls, and even an impromptu chess board. With the period coming to a close, students filtered back into the garden classroom and re-convened under the overhang in the garden classroom. A quick survey of the group revealed a student-to-mud ratio that was not in my favor. It was then that I felt that momentary, pit-of-your-stomach feeling that all educators get from time to time. Had I made a huge mistake? On closer inspection though, one thing was astonishingly clear – the ear-to-ear smiles on all of those muddy faces.

“For many young people, gardens are so fun because you get to do real work.”

– Nathan Larson, Teaching In Nature’s Classroom

School Garden programs naturally foster a sense of accomplishment. A seed becomes a plant that becomes a fruit that becomes food. A giant pile of compost who’s nutrition, shovelful by shovelful, gets dispersed into a dozen garden beds. In Teaching In Nature’s Classroom, Nathan Larson writes “for many young people, gardens are so fun because you get to do real work. Children thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to use real tools to plant seeds, tend crops, cultivate garden beds, and roll wheelbarrow loads of wood chips and compost.” Beyond just those dirty hands and muddy feet, there is a tangible result from all of that work which students can both see and eat.

I’ve had the pleasure of working at four different schools over my career, each of which has offered a very different sentiment about students getting dirty. For one school in particular, students eagerly awaited cloudy skies, celebrating the chance to use the rows of rain slickers and rubber boots that line the hallways. But for other schools, rainy days were a hard “no-go” in the garden, as were the ensuing days that followed as we patiently waited for Mother Nature to dry the ground up. For the latter schools, I always wondered if the goal was to prevent dirty students or to prevent dirty classrooms. Most assuredly, those are very different things.

Of the roughly two thousand students that I’ve worked with throughout my career, I can count on one hand the number of students who were truly fearful of dirt and/or being dirty. That’s not to say that some didn’t require a little coaxing out of their shell of cleanliness, but even the most staunch “anti-dirters” eventually succumbed to the allure of soil. When faced with students who appear anxious about being dirty, it’s critically important to “consider how to support your students in culturally competent ways to help them feel safe and comfortable as they engage with soil in the garden,” Larson adds. This can be as simple as giving your students a “head’s up” by reminding them to dress appropriately for an upcoming day in the garden. Providing proper tools, gloves, kneeling pads and a place to wash up afterwards can really help students release any potential apprehension. For many though, just the simple enjoyment of being outdoors and working alongside their friends and classmates is enough to encourage students to “let go and dig in.”

Beyond the developmental benefits of outdoor work, research suggests that getting dirty may actually provide students with physiological benefits as well. Coined the “hygiene hypothesis” in 1989 by epidemiologist Dr. David Strachan, this theory suggests that early childhood exposure to allergy-inducing pathogens may help prevent the onset of allergies later in life. This theory has since been studied and refined into the term “targeted hygiene,” which suggests that “increased social exposure through sport, other outdoor activities, less time spent indoors, diet and appropriate antibiotic use, may help restore the microbiome and perhaps reduce risks of allergic disease,” according to a 2016 Perspect Public Health study. Restoring ideal gut microflora has been linked to a strong immune system, decreased incidence of anxiety and depression, greater cardiovascular health and reduced allergies and asthma. 

Overwhelmingly, the chance to get dirty in a school garden offers opportunities and experiences that simply cannot be replicated within the walls of a traditional classroom. When provided with a comfortable setting and the appropriate tools to do so, even the most dirt-phobic students can find themselves endlessly engaged.  Whether planting a seed, shoveling compost or just digging a hole, this form of “real work” can provide social, developmental and physiological benefits that many students are missing. So don’t be afraid to go out and GET DIRTY!


Larson, Nathan. Teaching In Nature’s Classroom. 2015. Environmental Design Lab Press.

Bloomfield SF, Rook GA, Scott EA, Shanahan F, Stanwell-Smith R, Turner P. Time to abandon the hygiene hypothesis: new perspectives on allergic disease, the human microbiome, infectious disease prevention and the role of targeted hygiene. Perspect Public Health. 2016 Jul;136(4):213-24. doi: 10.1177/1757913916650225. PMID: 27354505; PMCID: PMC4966430.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Chris, I greatly enjoyed reading your piece. And I wholehearted agree about the joys of getting dirty!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, Chris! I love these vivid images and reflections.

    Liked by 1 person

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