I Let My Kids Get Dirty

We’ve all been there. As soon as we step outside and are hit with the smell of fresh rain hanging in the air, we know it’s coming. At least one kid is going to land in a puddle.  Or perhaps it’s a trip to the park that will get us. Sand knows no boundaries, and it will permeate every nook and cranny of our children’s bodies, our bodies, and any belongings we brought with us. Add in sunscreen, and watch as our children slowly morph into the rock man from The Neverending Story.

But unless we are headed to meet the Queen (okay, or the doctor, or somewhere else with an expectation of cleanliness), I don’t worry about my kids getting dirty. Sometimes I even encourage it.

Here are some reasons why dirt is good for kids…

Playing In The Dirt Is Fun

There’s a reason kids are drawn to mud puddles – there is nothing quite so satisfying to a child as a foot slamming down into freshly pooled water. It splashes, it splatters, it makes fun mucky noises.

Even when getting dirty isn’t the specific goal, it is a frequent by-product of having a great time. When I began teaching pre-school, a parent offered a refreshing perspective. When she came to pick up her child, her daughter was covered head to toe in various splotches. Picture Joseph and his amazing technicolour Dreamcoat, but with stains. I had cleaned her hands and face, as I did frequently with each child throughout the day, but she was still unrecognizable as the pristine child I had been handed first thing in the morning.

I apologized to her mother for the state of her daughter, with a nervous laugh. She brushed off my concern and told me she loved it when her kid was a mess when she picked her up because it meant she had fun that day. She assured me she would be more worried if her daughter was spotless.

Learning Is Messy

Children learn through play. This is not a new concept, but increasingly play-based learning is being adopted over the traditional method of seated instruction. Where it’s hands-on, there is dirt. I want my kids to use all of their senses to take in the world around them. I want them to paint without worry of getting it on their clothes. I want them to roll down hills and not worry about grass stains. I want them to dig, and build, and touch. There is only so much they can learn from books and television. Sometimes they need to get right in there and get their hands dirty.

Dirt Helps Build Well-functioning Immune Systems

I’m not suggesting that kids should play in dirt indiscriminately. There is certainly a difference between helpful dirt and a risky environment. Immunologist Tirumalai Kamala explains that, when it’s said that dirt is good for the immune system, it isn’t as much about literally playing in the dirt as it is being exposed to a natural environment. Exposure to microbes in an unsanitized world helps teach our immune systems to react appropriately. This doesn’t mean introducing raw chicken to the toy box, and doesn’t replace our responsibility to ensure our children aren’t playing in lead-contaminated soil, etc.; it simply means that we don’t need to keep everything sterile. Part of that means rolling around on the grass, puddle-hopping, and petting goats.

Clothes (and Kids) Are Washable

My advice to parents of the kids in my classes was to invest in play clothes. Never send your kid to school in clothes that can’t get messy. In my family, we do have some clothes that we keep neat for special occasions; but most of their clothing is mud-ready. And we have a functional shower — and a hose in the yard. Allow them to get dirty, and let it all come out in the wash.

It’s About More Than Dirt

Unlike their clothing, the memories kids make while playing hard are priceless. You’ve probably heard about The Power of Play… and all of it is true!! Long after they have taken their third bath that day, and outgrown that perfect outfit, they will remember the day they went hiking in the woods, or had a mud fight, baked that perfect cake, or painted that masterpiece. The skills they acquired with this freedom to get messy will still be serving them well. They will look back at photos of them covered head to toe in one thing or another and know that we cared more about them than their belongings or their cleanliness.

Heather M. Jones is a writer in Toronto and mom to two young boys. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, or her website.