Let Kids be Kids (Part One): Playing in the Dirt

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Why let kids be kids and play in the dirt? Read the science here.

When we let kids be kids, they stain their clothes and cover walls with dirty hand prints. Active boys break light fixtures. Running preschoolers bonk heads and hurt each other. Toddlers spill cups on the floor. 

Sometimes, they even cause mini-disasters. Like the time my four-year-old son broke the pipe that supplies water to the entire house… four and a half waking hours before labor started for my third homebirth. Or the time my niece hid the ONLY key to her mother’s car, and it cost hundreds of dollars to replace.

With all this mess and disaster in store, why would we ever let kids do anything? It’s so much easier to pacify them in front of a screen. There’s less laundry if I forbid digging in the dirt and insist that I be the only one allowed in the kitchen.

However, science shows that when we let kids be kids, it’s better for them… AND Mom.

In this four-part series, we’ll look at the science (and the logic) of why letting kids be kids improves life for Mommy and baby.

 

Part ONE:
Let Kids be Kids– Playing in the Dirt

Squish. Squish.

I’m five years old, making mud pies with my best friend and brother, Matt, after a spring rain. He contracts pinworms and needs medication.

Rock. Rock.

I’m thirty, nursing the baby while the older children excavate holes, engineer rivers and generally make a mess of themselves, my front yard and my porch. The dirt sneaks into the kids’ hair, through the house and onto my walls.

What a disaster, right?

So why let kids be kids and play in the dirt if it causes such a mess?

Let’s take a look and the science and logic behind letting our kids build dirt fortresses. The payoff is well worth the mess. Kids who play in the dirt have:

  1. Less Sick Days (AKA Free Probiotics)

Probiotics help overcome colds. A study by Leyer et. al. shows that children given probiotics have reduced numbers and length of “fever, rhinorrhea, and cough incidence.”1 The children taking probiotics were also prescribed less antibiotics and had fewer illness-related absences from school. 

Probiotics have this effect, because they help establish the proper bacteria in the child’s gut.

However, did you know that playing in the dirt does the same thing? According to Scudellari, “Young children continue amassing microbiota in every contact with family members, while playing outside in dirt, getting licked by dogs and sharing toys with friends.”2

When your children have mud fights, they improve the bacteria in their guts and simultaneously improve their immunity.

2. A healthier life.

The Western world runs on the “hygene theory.” This theory states that the less germs in the environment, the less sick a person will be. While we made great strides as a society with this theory, science says we have unfortunately taken it too far.

According to Rook and Brunet, “allergic disorders… are much more common in the rich parts of the world than in the developing countries. There has been a steady increase over several decades so that allergic symptoms now afflict as many as 40% of all children in some European or American inner cities.” 3

Our bodies need early exposure to germs to learn WHAT to fight. If we do not properly “train” our immune systems to fight disease by exposing the system to bacteria, then the immune system starts to fight things it shouldn’t.  Enter autoimmune diseases, allergies, eczema and more.

As a result, kids who play in the dirt and are exposed to more germs are healthier throughout their entire lives. 4

3. Sensory play made easy!

Sensory play develops your child’s brain, improves language, motor and social skills, and increases problem solving capabilities.5

I know you’ve seen all the complicated sensory play ideas on Pinterest: dye-the-rice five colors. Put eight boxes of cooked spaghetti in your bathtub.

You may choose to make the time for these projects… or perhaps you have a child who needs very specific sensory activities for development.

I, however, choose the simple route at this fork in the road.

Playing in the dirt makes sensory input easy: put on play clothes, go outside, possibly turn the hose on, let the kids find the dirt, and you’ve got instant sensory play. Dirt, water, birds tweeting, wind, rocks, plants and more: hundreds of sights, smells, textures and sensations to explore with minimal input.

4. Hours of free entertainment.

Need a Mommy break? Playing in the dirt will keep my kids engaged for hours on a good day. If they’re in our fenced back yard, I can get chores done (or just breathe) while they play. When my kids dig in the front yard, I can have a phone conversation, read a novel, write a thank you card or simply enjoy watching while I supervise. 

  1. More fun.

“If you’re not dirty, you’re not having fun,” my mom would tell us when we would come in from splashing in puddles when I was a child myself. Some of my favorite childhood memories involve dirt.

Conclusion

Playing in the dirt engages our children’s hearts, minds and bodies. It’s something they not only enjoy, but also need for their development.

So, take a break today while your little one “bakes” a few mud pies. You’ll improve your child’s immune system, set her up for success later in life and have more fun. We can swap muddy baby pictures on Facebook.

References:

  1. Leyer, Gregory J., et al. “Probiotic Effects on Cold and Influenza-Like Symptom Incidence and Duration in Children.” Pediatrics, vol. 124, no. 2, 2009, pp. 172–179., doi:10.1542/peds.2008-2666 .
  2. Rook, Graham AW, and Laura R Brunet. “Give Us This Day Our Daily Germs.” Biologist, vol. 49, no. 4, 2002, pp. 145–149., www.wellwithin1.com/GermsDirtRook.pdf.
  3. Patki, Anil. “Eat Dirt and Avoid Atopy: The Hygiene Hypothesis Revisited.” Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology, vol. 73, no. 1, 2007, pp. 2–4., doi:10.4103/0378-6323.30642.
  4. “Why Sensory Play Is Important for Development.” Educational Playcare, 20 Oct. 2016, www.educationalplaycare.com/blog/sensory-play-important-development/.