Welcome to Dirt Town. Population: one to five eight-year-old boys, depending on the play date, and dozens of Matchbox cars.
Like so many creative projects, Dirt Town came about organically. We’d built Small Boy a fabulous sandbox fashioned like a red race car. He helped us put it together, paint the silver and black wheels on the sides, assemble the steering wheel and screw handles to the storage box in the front. We filled it with the finest white sand money can buy.
He played in it a handful of times, and then it went unused. He preferred a pile of dirt sitting beside the house after a landscaping project. But the dirt pile was in the full sun, so when the weather warmed up, he stopped playing there.
When the linden tree’s roots grew more and more exposed, Mr. C decided to improve the look of our admitted ratty back yard by spreading the dirt under the tree and adding some compost and grass seed. He got as far as transferring the dirt pile from beside the house to under the tree. The next day, we had this:
It doesn’t look like much. Those are old landscaping bricks. I’m not sure where the planks came from. The boys found long nails that fell in the dirt when we re-sided the house last spring and use them for something. I’m not sure what, as I stay out of Dirt Town. There’s something a little sacred about this kind of play, scraped out with gardening tools and a dump truck. It belongs to them and while Small Boy occasionally wants to show us a new “improvement”, for the most part, that’s his space to let his imagination go.
There are funny moments. When we had a heavy rainstorm, Dirt Town suffered severe flash flooding. Small Boy kicked the dirt and said, “We should have had insurance!”
Did you have a Dirt Town as a child? I did. A tree line bordered the edges of the playground I attended when I was Small Boy’s age. This was an all-girls school, and my friends and I would drag limbs and branches into fort-shapes, and ambush each other from these forts. We moved often, and when I got older I used to make houses out of the hanging clothes boxes, lining it with a sleeping bag and pillows and stuffed animals so I could read in peace. These kinds of spaces are important to kids, and adults, too. I have my own Dirt Town in the back yard. It’s shaped like an outdoor couch, and on sunny Sunday afternoons, that’s where I read and write and nap.
We’re tearing out the sandbox next weekend with plans to sell the structure on Craig’s List to someone whose kid prefers pristine white sand and a pretty red box. Around here, we play in Dirt Town.