Kay McDade was watering her freshly planted annuals when she looked over and saw her toddler’s hands and face smeared with mud — he was eating it from the newly drenched beds.
“Most moms would freak out,” says McDade, “But I just grabbed a washcloth and wiped him clean. I didn’t launch into any no-no’s or anything,” she adds. “I think if I do that he’ll be more drawn to it.”
For McDade, dirt’s not a four-letter word she should worry about. Our extreme-clean culture aside, plenty of scientists and educators agree with McDade. Our culture has become so obsessed by cleanliness that a pull-back on antibacterial sprays and gels is practically in order. But do kids have to start rolling in mud to make up for it?
USE COMMON SENSE
“No pediatrician in the world would deny that the healthiest adults are those who spent the most time as kids rolling around in the dirt,” says Mary Ruebush, author of Why Dirt is Good (Kaplan, 2009). “The world is full of diverse organisms, 99.9 percent of which can’t hurt you,” she says. “I try to teach parents to relax and let kids do what they naturally would do.”
Within reason, of course. Not ALL mud is devoid of bad bacteria. So, if you’re the type to freak out about mud play, you can always have your soil tested for contaminants through the University of Tennessee Extension’s Soil, Plant and Pest Center.
“There can be bad bacteria lurking in the mud which can be very harmful,” says Allen Peabody, M.D., of Pediatric Associates of Franklin. “I think common sense should prevail here — complete avoidance is unrealistic. Kids are going to play in dirt whether you try to keep them from it or not. All we can do as parents is make sure they wash their hands (but not too much!) afterward,” he says.
IS PLAYING IN MUD BENEFICIAL?
So is there an actual immunity boost provided by dirt play? “The data is inconclusive about how exposure to dirt affects the immune system,” says Peabody. “There is some evidence that kids growing up around livestock have fewer allergies, but this does not imply that they’re less sick with typical colds/illnesses,” he adds.
“There are excellent studies out of Germany by Erika von Mutius examining the environments of children raised on farms versus children raised in urban areas and their rates of asthma and allergy,” says Stacy Dorris, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics and a pediatric allergist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “These studies strongly support regular exposure to dirt (and farm animals!) skews the immune system away from an allergic profile.”
So while you want your kids to be clean, stay away from “too sterile” as it may not be best for them. “Unless your child is immunocompromised or very young (younger than 3 months), I encourage all parents to let their children get a little dirty regularly. In addition to the microbial exposure, it’s fun to play in the mud and it fosters a connection to the outdoors,” says Dorris. “Use common sense and wash up afterward, but maybe leave the hand sanitizer out of it.”
THERE ARE ACADEMIC BENEFITS, TOO!
Another benefit from playing in dirt — or in nature for that matter — is academic improvement. Taking the time to enjoy the outdoors and create teachable moments for your kids.
According to the lead author of a new Frontiers in Psychology study, Ming Kuo, associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, says it's time to take nature seriously as a resource for learning. Not only that, she adds that the trend of more work in the classroom due to all the standardized testing may be doing more harm than good.
"We found strong evidence that time in nature has a rejuvenating effect on attention; relieves stress; boosts self-discipline; increases physical activity and fitness; and promotes student self-motivation, enjoyment, and engagement," Kuo explains. "And all of these have been shown to improve learning."