Our first instinct when we see a child about to stick their hands in a dirt is often—“WAIT!!” We don’t want children to get dirty, because dirty means laundry, dirty means needing a change of clothes all the time, dirty means… not clean. We often think of being dirty as more than an inconvenience, it can also mean unsafe or unhealthy. We don’t want children to stick their hands in something because it could make them sick. But just how often is dirt actually a threat?
Today we’re going to explore the many benefits of getting dirty—the marvelousness of mess—and how we can reframe the way we think about sensory experiences in early childhood.
If you think back to your own childhood, you probably had some experiences playing outside in the dirt. Whether you planted flowers in your yard, built sandcastles on the beach, or splashed through mud puddles after a rainstorm, you experienced firsthand the joys of getting dirty. This kind of sensory play is vital to the development of young children. It’s how they explore and understand the world around them, how they learn.
“Let your child be a child. 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.” – Dr. Mary Ruebush (immunologist and author of Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends)
Studies show that dirt strengthens the immune system. If a child never gets dirty, her immune system doesn’t get a chance to develop. When children are exposed to dirt, they are introduced to bacteria and microbes that the immune system stores in its “memory” and protects the body from getting sick. Exposure to dirt might also help reduce the development of allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune diseases. Amazingly, dirt has also been shown to improve the heart’s health and the skin’s ability to heal. (National Wildlife Federation, 2012).
At the zoo, we encourage getting messy. If your little one gets up to their elbows in dirt at the dig pit, or decides that dipping both hands in the bowls of paint is more fun than painting on the paper, we smile and say, “That’s okay!” There’s a reason for this and it’s not just because we’re not the ones who are in charge of their bath-time and laundry duties. When children engage in messy play, they explore cause and effect, problem solve, use their imaginations, investigate, predict, and experience many different textures. When children use materials in new ways and make discoveries, they are using their senses to understand the world around them. Sensory play builds strength in the fingers and arms, which help develop the fine motor coordination necessary to hold a pencil, learn to write, and succeed in school.
Getting messy, especially when outdoors, can also reduce stress and increase happiness. Studies show that direct contact with dirt can actually work as a sort of natural antidepressant. A study by Bristol University in England found that Mycobacterium vaccae, or M. vaccae, a “friendly” bacteria found in soil, was shown to activate a group of neurons that produce the brain chemical serotonin, enhancing feelings of well-being (National Wildlife Federation, 2012).
Let’s try to change the way we think about dirt. Next time your child wants to squish their fingers through mud or roll around on the ground in the park, focus on the many benefits, not to mention how HAPPY they are!
Written by Emily Van Laan
Looking for a way to celebrate getting dirty? June 29th is International Mud Day! We’ll be hanging out at the Wild Sapling Play Forest from 10am-noon. We’ll bring the hose, you bring the change of clothes!
National Wildlife Federation. “The Dirt on Dirt: How Getting Dirty Outdoors Benefits Kids” 2012. Accessed May 16, 2017. http://www.nwf.org/pdf/Be%20Out%20There/Dirt_Report_2012.pdf