Anyone who has kids will remember the moment your child first put a fistfull of dirt into their mouth and the panic that went with it. “Will they get worms, with they get some terrible soil borne illness, did they just eat sand the cat peed on?” are just some of the thoughts that may have run through your mind.
We live in a world where, for may of us, getting dirty is something to be avoided at all costs. We’ve had good hygiene drummed into us, and as new parents, surely this means that our children should be clean too? Well, yes and no. Here are 5 good reasons why you should let your child play in the dirt.
The Hygiene Hypothesis
The hygiene hypothesis - based on research done in the 1980’s by an epidemiologist who found that children in bigger families were less likely to suffer from hay fever because they had been exposed to germs by their older siblings - is the premise that children who are exposed to various germs in early childhood are less at risk of certain diseases later on in life.
The hypothesis suggests that in developing children, the immune system needs to strengthen by fighting off contaminants found in everyday life, and that for children, there really can be such a thing as a “too clean” environment .
Based on this hypothesis, playing in the dirt provides an opportunity for children to come into contact with a range of commonly occurring contaminants and and germs, which strengthen their immune systems and leave them better protected against diseases such as allergies and asthma especially.
The Human Microbiome
Further research into the immune system has led scientists to believe that the rise in asthma and allergies has less to do with children in developed countries being subject to too few infections when they are young (the hygiene hypothesis) and more to do with the fact that their exposure to the microbial world is far more circumscribed than it once was.
Also known as the “old friends” theory, this approach says that we have gradually lost touch with with microbes like bacteria, parasites, fungi, etc that we evolved with, and which play an active role in human health. Modern practices such as antibiotics use, bottle feeding and elective C-sections have all been associated with conditions such as asthma, allergies, type 1 diabetes and obesity due to the fact that they disrupt the infant microbiome .
Whether or not you view this as just the flip-side to the Hygiene hypothesis, it still makes for a compelling argument to allow children to go outside and get dirty now and again. Young children continue to amass microbiota in every contact with family members, while playing outside in dirt, getting licked by dogs, and sharing toys with their friends. The developing immune system takes cues from all of these encounters.
Vitamin D is vital for bone development
Playing in the dirt means playing outside in the sunshine. Most humans depend on sunlight to satisfy their requirements for vitamin D, as very few foods contain or are fortified with vitamin D.
Vitamin D deficiency not only causes metabolic bone disease among children (rickets) and adults but also may increase the risk of many common chronic diseases. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with increased risks of deadly cancers, cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 1 diabetes mellitus.
Notwithstanding the danger of sunburn and exposure to excessive UV, heading outdoors for some playtime in the sunshine is therefore highly beneficial for bone development in children.
Mental and physical development
It’s is widely accepted that playing outside has huge benefits for the mental development of children. Outside play allows their imagination, fine motor skills and muscles to develop. Children acquire knowledge through experimentation, exploration and discovery, and where is there more to discover than outside in nature?
Outside play - by its’ very nature - is also less likely to be sedentary. Although children love to move, and adults tend to think of them as constantly being in motion, children today are leading much more sedentary lives than their predecessors. According to research, children ages 2 to 5 spend close to 25 hours of TV time each week. In fact, watching television is the predominant sedentary behavior in children, second only to sleeping! So getting your child outside is good for their physical and mental wellbeing.
Finally, whilst the jury may still be out on whether playing in the dirt is good or bad from a hygiene perspective, it is widely acknowledged by children, parents and experts that playing in the dirt is FUN!
As a mother myself, I firmly believe that children should handle insects, climb trees and play in the mud, but within the framework of good overall hygiene practices, such as regular bathing and handwashing.
A holistic overview of hygiene is important; children should be allowed to get dirty, but they should also understand why handwashing after playing in the dirt, before eating, or after going to the toilet, is so important. Children who are brought up without this understanding and who are allowed to play in the dirt may become prone to specific issues such as recurrent bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections because the umbrella of basic hygiene is not present.
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