My husband left with our son one evening for a Boy Scout gathering at the park with other dads and kids. When they returned a few hours later, my son walked in covered in dirt from head to toe.

His dress shirt for Scouts was crop-dusted with dirt and orange crumbs, as were his shorts, shoes, hair, face. His white socks were more of a matted gray. His hair was still damp with perspiration, and beads of sweat streaked little paths in the dirt on the sides of his face. He looked like he’d just left the the coal mine.

He kicked off his shoes when he first walked in the door, and he talked a mile a minute as he wiped more Dorito crumbs across his shirt. He was a hot mess. And I couldn’t have been more proud.

He’d had the time of his life, and the evidence left a big dirty ring in the bathtub. They’d been on the dirt trails, and spent time in the park setting up a tent and running around being age-appropriate hyperactive boys. They were out after dark on a school night.

My jaw dropped when I first saw him, but I just smiled and let it go. It’s a tradition now, to stop at the gas station with his dad after Scouts and to get a snack. It’s a special time for them together.

It takes me back to my younger days when I played rec center league softball with my friends and cousins. Our legs were always dusty from the ball field, and parents always brought snacks after the game. I also left big dirt rings in the bath tub once upon a time, unless we cooled off at the pool afterwards.

Remember when we were growing up our parents used to lock us outside and tell us to “go play?” We would do exactly that. Maybe go to a neighbor kid’s house, or two, and come back several hours later. It was such a regular thing to be given the gift of boredom and freedom to entertain ourselves. Those days were the best.

My mom always telling us, “In or out. Pick one!”
My mom always telling us, “In or out. Pick one!” We would continually go in and out the front door, often with a small trail of friends and cousins behind us. It isn’t really safe to let kids to do that anymore, and I miss those days when everything didn’t have to be so orderly, so nice and neat. It was more carefree.

When I was growing up, we didn’t have separate school clothes and play clothes. All of our clothes were play clothes, and many of them bit the dust, as my own children’s clothes have. But that’s okay. That’s what Goodwill, hand-me-downs and buy/sell/trade sites are for. I don’t fuss over a $3 shirt getting stained or torn.

I feel like I already spend so much time telling the kids to be careful not to spill something on their clothes, careful not to get dirty. But sometimes the situation is warranted and it isn’t a big deal. We don’t want them to wallow around like savages 24/7, but we should definitely be saying yes more.

My name is Audra and I’m the proud parent of a crop-dusted, Cheetos kid. I want him to have stained clothes and scraped knees from playing in dirt and climbing trees this summer. A dirty kid is a happy kid.

Let them play in dirt. Let them cover themselves in sidewalk chalk. Let them have sticky faces. Push them out of their playrooms and save your house. They’ll be happy, bursting with enthusiasm with the newfound freedom, and they’ll wash. (A garden hose can be a parent’s best outside friend.)

And with any luck, we can one day bring back the phrase “In or out. Pick one!” for our own children.