Grime is Good: The Benefits of Getting Dirty

“If your child isn’t coming in dirty every day, they’re not doing their job”. (CBS News, 2009) I find this to be an incredibly profound statement. It reminds me of the Mr. Rogers quote Becky posted last week about play being the “serious work” of childhood. Playing in the dirt and splashing in puddles is something most of us experienced during childhood. It’s something many of us would consider a childhood rite of passage. This kind of sensory play is vital to development in young children, and it’s actually good for their health too. In this post we will explore how messy play promotes cognitive and physical development, increases happiness, reduces anxiety, and boosts health. 

At LEAP, we encourage getting messy. If your little one gets up to their elbows in dirt at the sensory bin, or decides that immersing 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 affect, and textures like oozey, gritty, hot, cold, soft, and hard. They build, investigate, imagine, predict, and they relax and let their imaginations run wild. When children use materials in new ways and make discoveries, they are using their senses to make sense of the world around them (pun intended). 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). 

Other studies have found that dirt strengthens the immune system. The quotation at the beginning of this post is by an immunologist named Dr. Mary Ruebush who wrote an entire book about the benefits of playing in the dirt. 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).

So next time your LEAPer comes home caked in mud, smile and remember that grime is good!

Sources:

CBS News. “Dirt is Good for Kids, Expert Insists.” February 11, 2009. Accessed February 21, 2015 http://www.cbsnews.com/news/dirt-is-good-for-kids-expert-insists/

National Wildlife Federation. “The Dirt on Dirt: How Getting Dirty Outdoors Benefits Kids” 2012. Accessed February 21, 2015. http://www.nwf.org/pdf/Be%20Out%20There/Dirt_Report_2012.pdf

-Stacey Martin