A Little Dirt Won’t Hurt Them
By Kate Greene
Playing outside in the dirt might not be all that convenient for the
parents who have to clean the kids up later, but there are many
The other day, I told my kids that Earth Day is coming up on April 22.
Levi, the littlest one, said, “Oh goodie, that means we can get dirty!”
Why, yes you can, Levi! Although that’s obviously not the exact
intention of Earth Day, getting dirty might not be such a bad activity
for that occasion…and many others too.
We’ve all heard about those parents who worry so much about their kids’
well-being that they smother them. “Helicopter parenting” is one term
used to describe the ways some of us try to protect our children and
even young people from every danger out there, both physical and
emotional, while at the same time pushing them to achieve goals that
we’ve set for them. Well, I think that keeping them too clean in order
to protect them from germs and whatever else we fear might be lurking in
“dirt” is part of that over-wrought parenting style. And I don’t think
it’s good for our kids.
Not that many years ago, kids played in the dirt – they dug in
sandboxes, made forts with sticks and mud, waded in streams, and played
with worms, dogs, and other animals. Unfortunately, our fears about the
dangers lurking in the muck, and a push toward over-sanitization, keep
kids from doing what comes naturally, which is to go outside and get
Aside from the proven dangers of antibacterial soaps, which contain
triclosan, a harmful hormone disruptor that is also thought to create
bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, ultraclean environments can
actually contribute to the development of allergies, asthma, and other
autoimmune diseases. In studies of what is called the Hygiene
Hypothesis, researchers are concluding that organisms like the millions
of healthy bacteria, viruses, and parasites that enter the body along
with the dirt help develop healthy immune systems.
“What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his
immune response to explore his environment,” Mary Ruebush, a
microbiology and immunology instructor, wrote in her book Why Dirt
Is Good. “Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune
responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a
critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best
So don’t be concerned if you child comes home covered in mud and even
ingests some by accident while using his senses of taste and smell to
explore the world. At the same time, it’s wise to be on guard against
possible soil contamination in your child’s play area that could be due
to heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, which occur surprisingly often
in urban soil.
In his landmark book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv
brought together cutting- edge studies that pointed to direct exposure
to Nature as essential not only for a child’s healthy physical
development but also for her emotional health. He points to the growing
body of evidence linking the lack of Nature in children’s lives and the
rise in attention disorders and depression.
Studies have shown that simply having contact with dirt, whether it’s
through making mud pies, digging holes, or even gardening can
significantly improve a child’s mood and reduce her level of anxiety and stress (adults’ too!). Research has also found
that playing in the dirt can even improve classroom performance, which
is a good argument against decreasing recess time. And remember that
bacteria found in soil? It apparently helps produce happiness-promoting
Of course, a kid can get dirty playing indoors too. But there is lots of
evidence that, aside from all the other benefits I have mentioned, kids
who play outdoors become more adventurous, more self-motivated, and
better able to understand and assess risk.
So give your little ones a bucket and shovel, or just a kitchen bowl and
some spoons, and let them play in the dirt or the sand. Or let them help
you dig in the garden. (Yes, playing in the dirt is good for parents
Why Dirt Is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends by Mary
Ruebush (Kaplan Publishing, 2009)
The Wild Life Of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners
That Shape Who We Are Today by Rob Dunn (Harper Perennial, 2014)
I Love Dirt!: 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover
the Wonders of Nature by Jennifer Ward and Richard Louv (Roost
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit
Disorder by Richard Louv (Algonquin Books, 2008)
National Wildlife Federation's The Dirt on Dirt report
Kate Greene is a freelance writer and mom who lives on
Canada’s east coast with her family of five people and three animals.
You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.