In walks your child, hands caked in dirt, proudly displaying a mud pie. In dismay, you tell her to get to the bathroom, waving her towards a neat collection of soaps and sanitizers. After scolding her about how she must not play in the mud, she replies with a stomp of her foot and a determined voice, “Playing in the mud is good for me!”
Darn, social media… where has she picked that up?
I’m afraid, she’s right.
Children actually need exposure to everyday germs. The same kind of germs that are found in the muddiest of mud pies. Without this exposure, children cannot build up the healthy and strong immune system they need to fight off illness. While we have always thought that keeping germs and bacteria away from our children was a necessary part of raising a healthy child, the opposite actually holds more truth.
LET THEM GET THEIR HANDS DIRTY
In our overzealous efforts to keep our kids safe, we can often take cleanliness to a whole new level. The overuse of antibacterial soaps has prompted the FDA to state that there is no scientific backing to the idea that antibacterial soaps work any better at illness prevention than good old fashioned soap and water. Long term use of antibacterial soap may even have a negative impact on health.
Allowing a child to get back to nature can play many positive roles in their overall health and development. It can act as a preventative immunization while also allowing them to be involved in some risk-taking activities that can nurture many of the skills necessary for their development. Creativity and nature appreciation are just a couple of the skills that can be obtained from playing outdoors.
MUD CAN LIFT THE MOOD
Playing in the dirt can also relieve stress. A child’s mood can be raised during and after playing in the mud. Have you ever wondered why you feel a sense of calmness while planting in the garden? Studies have shown that a bacteria called Mycobacterium Vaccae is contained in dirt and is known to increase serotonin in our brains. This results in a calm and happy mood in children after having played in the mud.
MUD IS NATURE’S SENSORY PLAY
Muddy play-time can provide your child with a whole range of sensory experiences. Imagine the differences a child feels on their hands while playing with the texture of dry dirt. Now add some cool water to the sensation. They take their little hands and need the wet dirt until it becomes a mushy mud. They squish in their hands and it oozes between their fingers. This is also a visual experience as they witness the dry dirt turn into mud when adding water. Research has shown that sensory experiences can help build nerve connections in the brain pathways of a child. This assists in their ability to perform more complex tasks.
MUD BRINGS CLOSENESS WITH CREATURES
A child that plays in the dirt is also connecting themselves with nature. While getting their little hands dirty they are also picking up a lot of subtlety in the natural world around them. They may witness life in a day of an insect and its struggles to survive. They can observe the behavior of squirrels as they leap from tree to tree in search of nuts. They may hear the urgent call of a flock of crows as they chase a hawk away from their nesting area. All of these signs of nature can help teach your child an appreciation and understanding of the natural world. It can also teach them empathy as they strive to understand the struggles of nature’s creatures around them.
MUD PLAY DEVELOPS SKILLS
Playing in the dirt can also play a role in the development of fine and gross motor skills. Cupping handfuls of loose dirt without spilling any while they prepare to turn it into mud, using utensils to measure out the perfect amount of water and dirt, and sifting together the ingredients requires fine motor skills. Filling sand buckets with mud or water and transporting the full buckets requires the use of gross motor skills.
Now that you know that playing in the mud can be good for you, why not get a little dirty yourself? A little childhood reminiscing is good for us parents once in a while! Put on some old bibs and make some mud food, mud art, or a mud-brick house. You can even use mud in learning activities and as sensory play. Imagine the fun and muddy memories you and your child can create together.
Arthur is a child play theorist, educator, and a father. As chief editor for Muddy Smiles, he advocates for (lots) more play time within education and at home.