I recently reflected on the first time that my son played with dirt in our backyard. While my husband was busy preparing for our annual vegetable garden, I watched as my little one grabbed a tiny fistful of soil. He played with the clump in his hands for a minute, patted it together, and THEN threw it at me! His face lit up and he giggled. My first reaction was to cease the behavior immediately (what if he starts throwing dirt at everyone AND look at our soiled clothing?!). While I was deciding, another mud pie sailed past me and landed on my husband. The laughter continued.
From that day on, I chose to continue letting my son play in the dirt. We dig for worms and watch them wiggle. My son always has dirt beneath his fingernails by bath time and our back porch is full of shoes with mud clumps and clothing that are browned with our recent adventures. We may be muddy, but we are happy. I have since learned that we may be healthier for this “dirt play” too.
5 Reasons To Let Children Play in the Dirt
1) It Encourages Creative and Educational Outdoor Play
Children spend an average of seven daylight hours inside each day instead of outdoors connecting with and exploring in nature (1). There are so many opportunities to encourage outdoor creative play and learning (in the dirt) with children. Your children can likely find dirt-filled activities of their own, but in case you need some inspiration, read below!
Ideas for Dirty Fun:
* Plant a flower, vegetable or tree. Let your children pick what they would like to plant and let them be active participants in the process. My toddler son stayed entertained planting over three rows of seeds in our garden!
* Dig for worms and other insects.
* Create art with a mud paintbrush.
* Pretend to be a chef and whip up mud pies, cookies, muffins and cakes using old baking tins and cookie sheets. Decorate your “baked” goods with leaves and twigs. Let them bake, but don’t eat them!
* Built forts, tee pees or castles for your children’s favorite toys or stuffed animals. Use sticks, stones, leaves, flowers, dirt and whatever else you can find!
* Go on a barefoot nature hike (see below).
2) They May Get Benefits with Bare Feet
“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”
My husband runs and hikes with his bare feet and I imagine our son will be following in his “footsteps.” We have struggled to find the best shoes for our son that allow for optimal traction while conforming to his growing feet. Bare feet may be one answer and I am fine with that, even if it means dirty tootsies!
The benefits of going with bare feet start at a very young age. Babies who learn to walk without shoes may have a heightened connection with their surroundings. As their tiny feet navigate the landscape, the sensory inputs hush other external factors and assist with balance and movement. Walking barefoot may also improve one’s gait, putting less stress on the body and decreasing the likelihood for foot injury (surprising huh?). Playing and exploring with bare feet creates an increased awareness with the ground so we are better able to balance and adjust to the terrain below us. Shoes may also restrict growing feet and prevent proper toe spread, another factor increasing risk of possible injuries (2).
With all of that said, I believe walking with bare feet is great for the mind too. With heightened awareness of every dewy blade of grass, sharp pebble or warm grain of sand, your feet have no choice but to be present to their surroundings. To me, wandering sans shoes, signals relaxation especially after a long day. I hope that my son learns to feel this way too!
3) Dirt is an Immune Booster
The more dirt a child is exposed to, the more infectious microbes they are exposed to. In fact, there are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on earth (3)! While this may sound alarming, it is actually a health benefit! Studies have shown that this microbe exposure may lead to reduced levels of C-Reactive Protein, a biomarker for poor cardiovascular health (1). Other soil microbes help prevent skin inflammation (staphylocci anyone?) while others have been shown to help kill cancer cells or prevent asthma (3). Many probiotic supplements are now including bacteria similar to those found in soil (3).
4) They will be Happier
Digging around in the dirt has been shown to increase serotonin levels, which increase one’s feelings of happiness and well-being. The reason? A “friendly” bacteria known as Mycobacterium vaccae is often found in dirt and has been demonstrated to activate neurons that produce the brain chemical (1). There has also been some research exploring the link between dirt play and reduced stress levels and increased school focus in children (1).
5) It will Remind You to Play in the Dirt Too
Have you forgotten how good it feels to truly connect with Mother Earth? To let your hands and bare feet explore the land and get……..well….DIRTY! Spending time with my son outdoors reminds me that it is okay to get dirt beneath my fingernails too. My passion for gardening has increased and I crave the feeling of my hands working in the soil.
After all, we could use the mood and health boost the dirt has to offer us too!
(1) “The Dirt on Dirt” from the National Wildlife Foundation.
(3) Shetreat-Klein, Maya MD. The Dirt Cure: Growing Healthy Kids with Food Straight from Soil.
Photo Credit: Brent Combs via Flickr.com.