Dirt, Dirt, It Don't Hurt

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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).

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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

Mirror & Light Play

Have you been enjoying sensory play at LEAP? Sensory play is a major component of LEAP, and we love incorporating it wherever possible. From smooth black beans in the sensory bin to jingle bells at music, toddlers can use their senses to explore and play. While little ones are rapidly developing all five senses, sight is one of the first ways that babies and toddlers interpret the world around them. Mirror play and light play are great ways to engage the sense of sight!

We use light in various ways at LEAP. While we’re at Children’s Zoo, we have the added benefit of natural light flooding the building. We also use light tables at the loose parts station. Paired with scarves and gems, the light tables offer LEAPers a chance to experience light up close and safely. Light play helps toddlers develop an understanding of colors and translucence, from bright to pale and see-through to opaque.


Mirrors are often added to the imaginative play area (who doesn’t want to see how they look with a safari hat?). Mirrors provide babies and toddlers with the opportunity to develop self-recognition. Being able to recognize oneself is not only validating, it also leads to body awareness and spatial awareness – two important life skills! You can see these skills in action at the sensory bin where little elbows are constantly jostling for space.

Mirrors also lend well to conversations about emotions and expression. Mirrors provide a social context for developing emotions. How do you know when another person is feeling sad? Placing a mirror in a “timeout” or “cool-down” area can help toddlers connect their feelings of frustration to the tears and red cheeks that they’ll see in the reflection. Sharing mirror time and looking at expressions together can also help toddlers make connections between emotions and response.


Want to spruce up your mirror and light play at home? Try some of these ideas!

  • Put a mirror in your outdoor play area – Seeing oneself in a mirror surrounded by nature is a wonderful way to build connections with the natural world. Plus, there’s an added benefit of light play when sunlight bounces off the mirror!

  • Use window markers on your windows – They’re washable, we promise! Designing on a window creates a beautiful display of colors and translucence. Or use the markers on your mirror – draw silly masks, frames, or scenery to add to your play!

  • Try glow-in-the-dark paint – Glowing fluorescent paint is an additional step in light play, plus it can help little ones feel more comfortable in the dark. Not sure where to start? Add 1 tsp. of vinegar, some fluorescent paint, and dried pasta into a Ziploc bag. Shake, shake, shake! Let it dry. Find a dark room, then thread the glow-in-the-dark pasta onto some yarn!

  • Add handheld mirrors to your child’s play space – We sometimes add small handheld mirrors to our stations and we love them! Have you tried painting on mirrors at the process art station? Toddlers can carry them from place to place and use the mirrors to expand their exploration.

Have you tried mirror or light play recently? We’d love to hear about it!

Written by Nicole Hodur

Pollinator Power

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Spring is here – sort of! We are starting to see flowers blooming and hear bugs buzzing. Our world is coming to life with brightly colored flower petals and the sweet smells of nearby plants.

Flowering plants not only look and smell wonderful, they also provide us with oxygen and produce delicious nectar – a sweet energy drink for many animals! Do you know which animals? We often call them “pests” or say they’re “bugging” us, but these animals have an important job to do and they are most efficient when they keep to themselves. We’re talking about pollinators!

Plants and their pollinators have a very special relationship! Plants offer pollinators a valuable food source, while pollinators help spread pollen from flower to flower, creating more plants. Without pollinators, many of the plants we love to look at and eat wouldn’t be here.

Let’s take a look at some of the pollinators you might see buzzing and flitting around Chicago!


  • Did you know there are 8 different species of bats that call Chicago ‘home?’ These nocturnal, flying mammals love flowers that are white or pale in color, large, and have a strong, fruity smell. Bats drink the nectar from flowers, picking up pollen in their fuzzy fur.

  • Read this book: Good Night, Bat! Good Morning, Squirrel!



  • Bees are pollinating champions! They need lots of energy to live and work in their hive, so they are constantly on the move searching for flowers. They have furry bodies and legs that work like Velcro, helping them carry pollen all over.

  • Read this book: Bee Dance



  • There are so many different types of beetles, both in Chicago and around the world.  Ladybugs are a common beetle seen here, and they LOVE to drink nectar and eat pollen. They also like to munch on smaller garden pests.

  • Read this book: The Ladybug Race



  • There are a long list of birds native to Chicago – but many of them help spread pollen. The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird loves flowers that are bright and open during the day. These tiny birds will use their long, tube-like beaks to sip nectar, and will sprinkle pollen as they fly!

  • Read this book: Hooray for Birds!


Butterflies & Moths!

  • Both butterflies and moths love flowers that have wide, flat petals – perfect for landing! Lucky for flowers, these insects work around the clock. Butterflies search for nectar during the day, while moths are busy at night.

  • Read this book: Butterfly Butterfly: A Book of Colors


Want to help pollinators be successful in their daily jobs? Check out this Lincoln Park Zoo article on insect hotels! And as you wait patiently for spring to stick around, don’t forget to keep an eye out for the pollinators mentioned above.

Written by Nicole Hodur