It seems like kids and dirt just go together. Dirt piles and mud puddles beckon children to come and play. Before you know it, they end up covered head to toe in dirt.
And as you stain-treat shirts and mop muddy footprints, you might wonder what you were thinking when you set your children loose in the backyard.
Take heart! The mess may not be fun to clean up, but it’s worth it. Turns out, playing in the dirt is good for kids’ minds and bodies.
The next time you’re tempted to call your kids back in when it’s sloshy outside, remember there are at least five good reasons to let them get good and muddy.
Disclaimer: the following is meant for information only and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice or guidance. Playing in dirt may be safe for many kids, but it might not be for yours, depending on medical history. Talk to your pediatrician about the possible risks and benefits of playing in the dirt when it comes to your own child.
#1) Dirt helps to build the immune system.
Our modern world is pretty sterile. Kids today aren’t exposed to germs the way they were a few generations ago. In the past, children typically spent more time around plants and animals.
That’s not often the case today.
Even when children are in nature, parents may be quick to wipe their faces or squirt hand sanitizer on their palms. As a result, kids may be more susceptible to developing allergies and eczema.
While it might seem hard at first, embracing the mess in a safe way can actually help your kids. Each scoop of mud will put them in contact with a treasure trove of bacteria. When your kids’ nails are caked with dirt, remind yourself that their immune systems are reaping rewards. Even if they end up eating some of it, that’s okay. (Really!)
And the health benefits they gain now may last for a lifetime.
Childhood exposure to germs may have an anti-inflammatory effect that continues into adulthood. So when your kids grow up, they might be less likely to suffer heart attacks or strokes.
There’s a big caveat here, of course.
Some dirt is better than others.
Backyards and playgrounds are generally safe. Digging in landfill waste is another story. Watch out for animal droppings, too, since they may harbor large quantities of pathogens like E. coli.
While studies on cardiovascular inflammation do indicate that early exposure to animal feces can be beneficial, you probably don’t want your kids sticking their hands right into piles of dung. Avoiding waste is, generally, the right approach.
#2) Being outside can boost mental health.
Gardeners know the sense of calm that comes with reaching into the dirt. But it’s more than just being in their happy place. There’s scientific evidence that dirt is actually good for your mood.
When your hands come in contact with certain bacteria in the soil, your body responds by boosting serotonin production. And serotonin is a hormone that’s associated with feelings of happiness and stability.
Translation? Playing in the dirt really could make kids happier.
It’s not just dirt that’s good for children’s mental health, either. Simply being in nature has positive effects.
Some research shows that people who spend time in nature have better personal interactions and show more generosity. Other studies indicate that getting outdoors can boost happiness and reduce anxiety or hyperactivity symptoms.
Spending time in nature as a kid might lessen the chances of experiencing serious mental health disorders as an adult.
#3) Outdoor time encourages movement.
When kids have free reign of a backyard or a park, they tend to go, go, go. Children love to run, skip, jump and roll. And all of that movement is good for them. It exercises their bodies while strengthening their gross motor skills.
Childhood obesity is a serious concern. The percentage of American children dealing with obesity tripled between 1960 and 2000. Being at an unhealthy weight can leave children more susceptible to diabetes and sleep apnea.
Plus, around 4 out of every 5 obese children stay obese in adulthood.
Exercise is a smart way to combat excess weight gain. Research shows that kids are most likely to slim down for the long haul if exercise is an integral part of their daily lives. Encouraging your kids to get out and play in the dirt could be a key part of a fitness-focused life.
Even when children are sitting in one spot to dig a hole or squish mud between their fingers, they’re still working their muscles. These activities help encourage fine motor skills.
Young children, in particular, are still learning how to use their hands well.
Gaining control over hand muscles is known as developing fine motor skills. The stronger these skills are, the more independent kids can be. Fine motor skills are important for writing with pencils and eating with utensils. They’re also useful for buttoning shirts and tying shoes.
#4) Sunlight stimulates vitamin D production.
Everybody needs daily vitamin D. Without it, your body can’t properly absorb phosphorus or calcium. And that can lead to diseases in both children and adults.
Over time, kids who are deficient in vitamin D may develop rickets. That’s a disease in which the bones become soft.
But strong bones aren’t the only reason to make sure that your kids get enough of this essential vitamin. Research suggests that vitamin D levels may also play a role in whether people develop heart disease and cancer.
Not many foods naturally contain vitamin D. Unless your kids get a steady diet of beef liver and mackerel, their protein consumption probably won’t do the trick. Fortunately, most of the milk in your grocery store’s dairy case is fortified with vitamin D.
Still, your children might need more of it than an occasional glass of milk provides. And for that, your choices are supplements or sunlight.
The human body doesn’t produce vitamin D all day, every day. Instead, your skin only manufactures this vitamin when it’s stimulated by UVB rays from the sun. If you want your kids’ bodies to generate vitamin D, you have to let them play outside.
Although vitamin D is good for the body, you do need to be careful. Excessive sun exposure can damage your kids’ skin. For safety’s sake, slather children’s faces and the tops of their ears with sunscreen whenever they head outside.
Allow their arms, legs and bellies to go unprotected for the first 15 minutes of outdoor play. That’s enough time to generate some vitamin D production. After 15 minutes go by, apply sunscreen to any exposed body parts that you skipped during the first round.
And by the way, if you think your kid needs extra vitamin D or you’re worried about it, make sure to check in with your pediatrician. Even with regular sunlight exposure, some people just need more. Your child’s pediatrician can help you figure out if he needs a supplement or more time outside.
#5) Free play boosts brain power.
When kids play in the dirt, they engage all of their senses. They see the color of the soil and feel its dampness beneath their fingers. They smell its rich, earthy scent. Their ears may take in the squelching sound of squished mud. Now and then, they may even sample a little taste.
This sensory stimulation means that your kids’ brains are exploding with activity.
That’s good for developing critical thinking and problem solving skills. This type of play also helps kids understand the concept of cause and effect. When your kids practice science, math or literacy skills in school, they may draw on the foundational lessons that they learned during mud play.
The freedom to explore their natural surroundings can also help kids become more creative. Left to their own devices, children may turn a pile of dirt into a café or a construction site. They can invent their own games and build their own worlds.
A day in the dirt has so much to offer kids’ brains and bodies. Let your children roll up their sleeves, stick their hands in the soil and make a delightful mess.