On a typical afternoon these days, you might come over to my house and discover a scene very much like the one pictured above. My daughter is almost three years old, and she currently has a fascination with dirt – the dirtier, the better.
She can literally spend hours playing in the dirt, moving it around, making dirt cakes and mud pies, and covering herself in earthy brown goodness. I suspect she is not alone in her fascination; it seems that both boys and girls are drawn to play with dirt from the very youngest of ages.
At our home, there have been a few observers who objected.
“Yucky! Don’t play in the dirt!”
I simply smile and say, “That’s what childhood is for – getting dirty. It’s good for her.”
And believe it or not, it is good for her – body and soul.
Dirt – It Does a Body (and Soul) Good
Here are just five ways (of many) that dirt can benefit your children.
1. Did you know that studies have shown dirt to be good for your brain? Apparently, there are types of bacteria that are naturally found in soil which 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.)
2. Dirt is also great for the immune system, especially in children. Research has shown that early exposure to the naturally occurring microbes in soil will help build stronger, more disease-resistant kiddos.
Photo by James Emery
In our germaphobic culture where we have entire aisles of cleaning products at the grocery store, some children are being raised in “overhygienic” conditions. Without enough exposure to different bacteria and microbes, it is thought that 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.
3. If you joined in reading The Last Child in the Woods with the Simple Living book club, you’ll be 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.
4. Children who play outside laugh more, which means they’re happy! It also means their blood pressure and stress levels are lower. (Did YOU know that those are two physical benefits of laughter? We could all probably stand to laugh a little more!)
5. 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.
How to Get Dirty
Photo by Lori
Now, I know some of you may still be thinking about those mud wraps (wink). But I have a theory that mud wraps are just a socially acceptable way for grown-ups to play in the dirt again. Grown-up or child, playing in the dirt is good for the soul as well as the body.
Here are some ideas for your children:
• If you’ve never tried this, just give your child a bucket and a shovel and set them in the dirt. See what happens – they will probably be in heaven for quite some time.
• Garden with your kids! There are lots of gardening tips on Simple Homemade, and Tsh has three suggestions for gardening with kids. You can create a separate little garden for your children, too – if your child is very young, you don’t even need to actually plant anything in it; they will simply love having a dirt plot of their own.
• Explore nature with your children; study insects, leaves, wildflowers, rocks, etc. Start a nature collection. Take hikes. Wade in creeks. Go on picnics. DON’T clean their hands with antibacterial wipes before you eat. A little water and soap will do.
• Check out Simple Kids for lots of ideas on kids and nature – it’s a virtual treasure trove!
Considering all the benefits of playing in the dirt, it sounds like a great idea for us grown-ups to get outside and join our children.
Do you let your kids play in the dirt? What about you?
This post was first published on June 25, 2010.