Our country is overrun by the quest to cut out all germs and bacteria and become as “clean” as possible. We have entire grocery aisles dedicated to cleaning supplies and constant marketing schemes to get cleaner (but what I see, personally, as only adding more harmful chemicals to our home.) Unfortunately, that trend has also led to an increase in allergies, less resistance to bacteria and an overall phobia of being the family with “the dirty kids”.
Immunologist, Mary Ruebush, Ph.D reports on why kids who are not allowed to be dirty end up being less healthy overall: “It’s called the hygiene hypothesis. It’s been around since 1989. It’s not new information. But, absolutely, the failure to expose your children to normal environmental things causes the immune response to turn inward on itself. So the development of allergies and what we call auto-immune disease is clearly related to the increase in cleanliness in our society.”
While there is, of course, a time and a place for everything, getting muddy and dirty should be an integral part of childhood (and adulthood too!) In fact, there is new research to suggest that “exposure to specific bacteria (Mycobacterium vaccae – which people will naturally ingest and breathe in while outside) in the environment, already believed to have antidepressant qualities, could increase learning behavior” (find full article here).
Besides a child’s general health, there is a wealth of growing, maturing, adventuring, and discovering that can only happen outside. Our society has coined a phrase (thanks to Richard Louv) – “nature deficient disorder” – that directly explains the increase of attention disorders, depression and obesity. Playing in the dirt is the simplest of acts that gives the greatest benefit emotionally, physically and mentally. And every parent is all for that!
Believe me, I join the ranks of moms that is overrun by piles of laundry (because normally clothes are too dirty to be worn more than one day) and sighs at the sight of a kid coming in you can hardly recognize through the dirt. But, in my years (all 4.5 of them….) of being a mom and watching kids I have learned that my kids are happiest, sleep best and learn more efficiently when they are given uninterrupted time of play and discovery outside (usually with dirt AND water.) The sandbox or dirt pile or just dirt in general is used more than any other fancy toy out there. In fact, this winter-lover is (for the first time ever) dreading the fact that kids playing outside nearly naked will not be possible (because it is sooo much easier to clean up!)
Sometimes making the switch to letting kids get dirty isn’t so easy to swallow and is less understood by people who do not have children themselves (I was one of them…) Here’s some of our best quick and easy tips to allow kids to just discover and learn with Mother Nature:
- Hand them a bucket and a shovel. Go on a walk or stay in your backyard. Large dirt piles are particularly interesting for boys and girls alike. See what they come back with and what they do with it. My boys love to add a matchbox car or two to the mix – sometimes they are buried, sometimes they are forgotten and sometimes they are loaded by the shovel – all are ok.
- Let them garden with you. Even if you have never gardened in your life. Even just 3 pots of flowers or hard-to-kill vegetables are great fun to plant and watch grow. And…you can’t avoid getting dirty!
- Buy one of those cheap plastic little pools. Let the kids fill it with a little water and put it next to accessible dirt. Give them that aforementioned shovel and bucket and see what happens. Be ok with the fact that in less than 10 minutes the water in the pool will most likely not be clean.
- Invest in mud boots and clothing that will hold up to the “abuse” of outside time. We’re big fans of the kids’ line from Mountain Khakis they just brought back (see below for full review and giveaway.)
- Relax. Kids come clean (eventually) and play clothes are for playing. They wash too.
- Play along a river and discover in the mud and muck and water. Safely, of course.
- In the warmer months of the year, keep a hose attached and accessible. Get your kids used to just being hosed down before they come back inside – make it a fun game!
- Distinguish outside and inside toys. Limit both, but particularly the ones that stay outside. Less is certainly more when it comes to helping kids connect with nature.
- Go out in the rain. Bike, walk and run through mud puddles and dig for worms in the dirt. These are the days when I can’t sing the praises of DucKsday Rainsuits enough. They keep kids warm and dry and can be taken off quickly to not track mud inside. P fell into a 6 inch mud puddle last week and was totally content because he couldn’t feel a thing. Absolute top gear pick from us.
- Get dirty yourself. Go on, it’s fun!
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