By Sarah Paulos, Nebraska Extension Educator
“Don’t get dirty.”
“Wash your hands!”
This has been the request of parents throughout the ages aimed at children coming in and out from outdoor play. But is this good advice? Can getting dirty and being exposed to germs actually benefit children? The answer is yes.
The Centers for Disease Control stated that the number of Americans with asthma grew by 28 percent from 2001-11. Research has also noted that children who are exposed to more microbes (or germs) early in life develop better immune tolerance to things like asthma and allergies.
This “hygiene hypothesis” examines the idea that as we become a more developed environment, we are being exposed to less and less microbes that would otherwise “train” our immune system to function better against disease.
Dr. Mary Ruebush, an immunologist and author of “Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends,” says, “Let your child be a child. Dirt is good. If your child isn’t coming in dirty every day, they’re not doing their job. They’re not building their immunological army.”
So, what can you do as a parent? Relax. Kids are meant to be dirty. Their bodies crave the outdoors. As children are spending more and more time in front of a screen, the need to get dirty is increasing. Encourage children’s excitement for the outdoors. Let them taste dirt. Let them touch a worm. Forego the hand sanitizer for every speck of dust. Not only does dirt benefit children’s health, but it also benefits their emotional state.
The National Wildlife Federation, in their article “The Dirt on Dirt,” states that “Making direct contact with soil, whether through gardening, digging for worms, or making mud pies, has been shown to improve mood, reduce anxiety and facilitate learning.”
What are some ways to help kids get dirty? Start a garden. Even a small window-will garden can be a great activity that encourages curiosity and learning.
Make mud pies. Find a patch of dirt to water down and make some mud.
Don’t want to tear up the yard? Fill a small plastic pool with sand and just add water. Build sand castles, make moats, or just dig around. Get some dirt under those fingernails!
There are lots of easy (and cheap) ways to get outside and have some fun. Don’t get scared by a little dirt and try acting like a kid again.
For more more research-based information about raising healthy children, see Nebraska Extension’s page on the learning child at https://child.unl.edu.