March 29th, 2012 by

Dirt is Good for Kids

I have to admit, I still cringe a little when I let the kids into the dirt. Our society is obsessed with cleanliness; and, like most of us, I have been shaped (at least to some degree) by the paranoia surrounding the issue of germs.

When I started running a home daycare a few years ago, I was committed to keeping the children relatively neat and clean. Sure, they acquired some food stains on their clothes or got a little dusty in the sandbox; but they were, for the most part, unsullied. As they grew and began to explore more of the outside world, trying to maintain this level of cleanliness was close to impossible. I began to realize that to attempt to limit their exploration of nature in all its dirtiness (I say attempt because I was largely unsuccessful anyway) was to deprive them of their childhood right to play.

I spent most of my own childhood leisure time outdoors with friends, exploring nature. The happiness I feel when I recall things like climbing trees, collecting caterpillars and tadpoles and making mud pies is proof enough to me that this kind of play in mentally healthy. I see it as a crucial part of my development, and am grateful to my mother for permitting me to get filthy practically every day. It was this realization that made me relax. How could I limit the kids when I know how important this free exploration was to me? Since then I not only allow but encourage the kids to explore nature, in all its grubbiness. (Okay, we still have limits…namely, dog poop.)

But since my change of heart, I have learned that playing in dirt is not only healthy for the mind. It is actually physically healthy for kids to get dirty. Research shows that the rise in autoimmune disorders and allergies over the past few decades is largely due to the fact that children are no longer exposed to dirt and germs at a very early age. Look at any of the following articles, all from reputable sources. You’ll see that while hygiene is generally a good thing, we have gone to far in trying to protect our kids from germs. By doing so, we are actually putting their health at risk. I know, it’s counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/27/health/27brod.html

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010-03-24/features/ct-x-n-health-dirt-20100324_1_nu-professor-northwestern-study-immune-system

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/01/31/earlyshow/health/main4766105.shtml

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8373690.stm

http://www.nhs.uk/news/2009/11November/Pages/Is-dirt-good-for-kids.aspx

So, really, the only downside to letting the kids get dirty is the inevitable clean-up. And I can appreciate that there are many, many times when allowing kids free reign in the dirt would not be feasible. Even at school, a kindergarten teacher could not allow this type of play on a daily basis. The time it would take to change the kids’ clothes afterwards and clean them up would really cut into the curriculum.

But with the circumstances being as they are at the home daycare, I usually cannot find a good reason to stop their utter glee in playing in the muck. First of all, we are always close to home when they engage in this kind of play, so if something does go awry, we can head in sooner rather than later. As well, although I know it will take extra time to clean off boots, change any dirty or wet clothes and go around the apartment with a cloth or mini vacuum to clean up any scattered mud, it is doable for me. Tiring, but doable. And the older kids really try to help, which is so sweet!

By the way, the clean-up is not usually this intense! This is the first time we have ever taken a trip down to the laundry room together. They had just gotten particularly disgusting on this day. I think it was the degree of mud on Aidas’s coat that drove me to take them on this laundry excursion. I just could not give him back to his mother like that. Usually, though, when they go home, their coats, snowsuits and boots are pretty dirty. And now, when the parents of prospective clients visit the daycare, I make certain that they understand that their children, and their clothes will get filthy at this daycare. It is practically in the contract!

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