Are We Too Clean? The Dirt on Dirt

There are benefits to getting outside, having fun,  and playing in the dirt.Dirt gets a bad rap. Yes, hand-washing and removing dirty shoes before coming into the house are important for keeping kids healthy. But letting kids have some access to messy, muddy play can be good for them, too. Here’s why a little dirt, in fact, doesn’t hurt:

1. Dirt is great for sensory development.

Children’s minds are growing rapidly with every exposure to new sensations, textures, and colors—and playing in the dirt (with all the gooey, scratchy, wet, and sandy textures that come with it) allows their brains to form connections in their new world.

2. Dirt means kids are outdoors, and that usually means they’re getting exercise.

According to Dr. Mary Ruebush, author of Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friend“One of the most delightful sights for a parent should be a young child covered in dirt from an active afternoon of outdoor play. Kids who play outdoors and get dirty are healthier. They get plenty of physical exercise, and just as important, they get plenty of immunological exercise.”

3. Dirt may be good for the heart.

Researcher Thom McDade of the Laboratory for Human Biology Research at Northwestern University studied 1,700 people from birth to 21 years of age, and found that kids who had more exposure to microbes (like  mud) were less susceptible to the inflammation that causes heart disease and stroke. According to the researcher, “If our son drops something on the floor, we don’t really care if he picks it up and eats it.”

4. Nature can promote calm and ease symptoms of anxiety.

According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, children’s anxiety and behavioral issues can be reduced by trips to the park, nature walks, and getting dirty in the back yard.

5. Dirt may protect you from depression.

A study on mice from researchers at the University of Bristol and colleagues at University College London showed that soil-based bacteria activated neurons that produce the “antidepressant” brain chemical serotonin, which is important for maintaining mental health. The results “also leave us wondering if we shouldn’t all be spending more time playing in the dirt,” said the study’s lead author.

6. Want to learn about your personal microbes?

You can learn all about the microbes in your body courtesy of the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder. For $99, they’ll send you a microbial sampling kit. After you send it back, you’ll become a part of the American Gut project, which is studying how our lifestyle choices (like getting dirty at a young age) impacts our gut bacteria, and how that bacteria contributes to human health. Or, you can just read about the project, thanks to food phenom Michael Pollan, who wrote a story about it called, “Some of My Best Friends are Germs.”

We’re just beginning to understand the incredible world of bacteria inside and out—but the early research is clear: It’s okay to let our kids get a little bit dirty!

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