“Don’t track mud in the house!”
“Wash your hands before dinner!”
“You can’t play with that, you don’t know where it’s been!”
Parents wear those phrases out like old blue jeans put through the spin cycle too many times. Many have come to see D-I-R-T as a four-letter word. Only two decades ago, kids made forts with sticks and mud, waded up to their knees in streams. How many do that now? Fears about dangers lurking in the muck (microbes, parasites and amoebas, oh my!) and a societal slant in favor of over-sanitization keep families from letting kids do what comes naturally, which is to go outside and get a little messy.
But here’s a dirty little secret:
Dirt and germs can actually be good for kids. The things small children want to do outside, like building mud castles, splashing around in puddles and rolling down hills until their clothes are irreparably grass-stained—all those things that make parents reach for hand sanitizer and laundry detergent—may, in fact, be a grubby little prescription for health and happiness.
Unfortunately, boys and girls today spend the better part of their time, seven hours per day on average (Rideout, 2010), indoors, in the sterile company of technology, rather than following their in-born impulses to explore the natural world with their senses. This indoor childhood is damaging to kids. In fact, in the last twenty years as kids spent less and less time outside, childhood obesity rates more than doubled (CDC, 2008), the United States became the largest consumer of ADHD medications in the world (Sax, 2000), 7.6 million U.S. children are vitamin D deficient (Kumar, 2000), and the use of antidepressants in pediatric patients rose sharply (Delate, 2004). When kids do leave the house, a growing body of research suggests the exact things we do in the name of protecting them from dirt and germs, such as not letting them get too messy and frequently using hand sanitizers and antibacterial products, can inhibit their mental and physical health and resilience.
Dirt: It does a body (and soul) good
Here are just five ways (of many) that dirt can benefit your children.
- Did you know that studies have shown dirt is good for your brain? There are types of bacteria naturally found in soil that activate the neurons that produce serotonin, a key chemical in many bodily functions, as well as a natural anti-depressant. In other words, dirt can actually help make you feel happy. (And I’m not just talking about the mud wraps at the day spa.)
- Dirt is also great for the immune system, especially in children. Research has shown that early exposure to naturally occurring microbes in soil will help build stronger, more disease-resistant kiddos.
In our germaphobic culture where we have entire aisles of cleaning products at the grocery store, some children are being raised in over hygienic conditions. Without enough exposure to different bacteria and microbes, the immune system doesn’t learn to recognize its own cells, and this could be a reason for higher rates of asthma, eczema, and other diseases. Dr. Mary Ruebush, immunologist and author of Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends, counts letting kids play in the dirt as immune-system-building step number one. “Let your child be a child,” she says. “Dirt is good. If your child isn’t coming in dirty every day, they’re not doing their job. They’re not building their immunological army. So it’s terribly important.” (CBS News, 2009).
- If you’ve read The Last Child in the Woods, you’re familiar with the term “nature-deficit disorder.” In our technologically savvy generation, kids just aren’t getting enough time to play outside, and that has now been linked to attention disorders, depression (yes, in children), and obesity.
- Children who play outside laugh more, which means they’re happy! It also means their blood pressure and stress levels are lower.
- Kids who play outside grow in their character development: they become more adventurous, more self-motivated, and they are better able to understand and assess risk.
Grown-up or child, playing in the dirt is good for the soul as well as the body.
Excerpts taken from:
The DIRT on DIRT: How getting dirty outdoors benefits kids, National Wildlife Federation http://www.nwf.org/What-We-Do/Kids-and-Nature/Why-Get-Kids-Outside/Dirt-is-Great.aspx