Dirt Cheap Fun That Keeps Your Kids Healthy

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When children are dirty and smelly, they may actually be healthy. Scientists have measured the benefits of playing in the dirt.

My great-nephews are the luckiest kids in the world. Their mom lets them play in the dirt. She doesn’t get all bent out of shape about a little grime, figuring that this is why God invented soap and water.

She once showed me photos of her older boy after a trip to a muddy inlet. He was so coated in muck that he looked like a clay figurine. She’d anticipated that and brought along dry clothes so he wouldn’t wreck the inside of the family car.

“I did have to hose off his hair at the house, before his shower,” she said.

Playing in the dirt is truly frugal fun. Give a kid a spoon and some old plastic containers and watch him go to town.

What’s more, science seems to indicate dirt is literally good for our kids. Research published in the journal Neuroscience indicates that exposure to soil improves a person’s immune system and increases the production of the feel-good chemical serotonin. No wonder gardeners and children are always happy.

Down and dirty

My siblings and I played outdoors all year long. Spring and summer meant dirt, dirt, dirt. We made mud pies, dug holes, and splashed in the puddles that formed in the sand alongside the road. Worms were like pets. Sometimes I’d pull up a weed and observe its intricate, soil-caked root system. I liked the way the dirt smelled.

I remember lying on the ground to watch insects trundling bits of sand to build mounds or dragging food back to their homes. Sometimes I’d see a bunch of tiny ants moving a much larger dead insect and marvel at their strength.

Such things can now be glimpsed on the Discovery Channel, complete with binomial nomenclature. But they’re so much better experienced up-close and personal. Besides, with TV you don’t get to drop a cracker crumb and watch the ants scurry to “harvest” it.

Dirt isn’t always benign, of course. Tetanus spores are found in soil. So are pinworms and the potentially lethal raccoon roundworm, a parasite found in the animal’s feces that can cause serious injury or death if accidentally ingested.

There are no absolute guarantees that a raccoon has never pooped in your yard. But there’s a whole lot of things we can’t guarantee. Life is full of uncertainties. It’s also too short to spend as a germophobe.

Marginalizing Mother Nature

I feel sorry for kids whose main experience with the natural world is a manicured soccer field. We marginalize “nature” as something to be enjoyed in short doses from a well-maintained path that’s not too far from a parking lot. Because nature is, well, dirty. As in, full of dirt.

But kids love dirt. They love digging in it, sculpting with it, pouring water onto it. Dirty hands, dirty faces, dirty clothes – and happy children.

All it will cost you is a little extra soap, and some patience. But let them be kids.

And why not try it yourself? Dig a few holes. Lie down and make mud angels. Your children will never forget the day you slopped around in the dirt with them. They’ll also enjoy hosing off your head.

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Stacy Johnson

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