I didn’t grow up in an entirely dirt-free world. Sure, I wore frilly dresses and white patent leather shoes to church sometimes. But I also wore ripped jean shorts and sneakers and had tangles in my hair. And I played in dirt. A lot. It was okay, though, because as we all said throughout our innocent ‘80s childhoods, “God made dirt, so dirt don’t hurt.”
And now that I’m a parent, I too have dressed up my kids in their Sunday best, combed my boys’ hair down with the help of very strong hair gel, and painted glittery pink polish on my daughter’s nails.
But I’ve also made sure they get dirty. And sometimes, they are still in their church clothes when it happens. Because the childhood experience of digging for worms or making homes for ants and slugs and beetles is often spontaneous—at Grandma’s house on a Sunday afternoon, before we’ve had time to change.
Other times it’s a lazy morning in the summer, still in pajamas, digging for treasures in our own backyard. Whenever or wherever it happens, I let it go. Clothes and fingers and toes can be washed. The pure and simple joy of playing outside in nature is priceless.
The truth is, regardless of what they’re wearing, or where they are, or what they’re doing with said dirt, it sure doesn’t hurt them to play in it. My kids love to make maze tunnels and homes for bugs and frogs and worms. As a kid, I used to cover my bicycle with dirt, ride around the cul-de-sac until it all fell off, and then proudly declare that I was “out of gas” so I’d stop by the mailbox and “buy” gas and cigarettes, just like my parents did.
Was all that dirt exposure harmful? The cigarette smoke I was exposed to may have been. The lack of seatbelt wearing may have been a questionable safety concern. But dirt? Nah. Dirt definitely didn’t hurt anyone. And it doesn’t hurt my kids either.
In fact, studies now prove that not only does dirt “not hurt” but exposing our kids to it is actually beneficial to their health.
A New York Times article reports that “organisms like the millions of bacteria, viruses and especially worms that enter the body along with ‘dirt’ spur the development of a healthy immune system.” Yep, WORMS.
Studies have even gone so far as to say that “worms may help to redirect an immune system that has gone awry and resulted in autoimmune disorders, allergies and asthma.”
Furthermore, researchers are now finding that due to our ultra-clean world where kids are exposed to fewer and fewer mouthfuls of dirt, immune system disorders like multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma and allergies are on the rise in developed nations around the world.
Because the truth is, exposure to “scary” things helps the body develop an immunity to those things. For example, this is often the case for allergens. Our son’s allergist has recommended continued exposure to his allergy triggers to help his body learn how to fight them off. The same can be said for all the germs and organisms found out in our world, especially on the ground, and especially on worms.
Do experts recommend we feed our kids worm soup? Or never wash them again? Of course not. Experts still recommend kids wash their hands with soap and water before eating, after using the bathroom, etc. That’s obviously still good practice.
But maybe there’s something to be said for the 5-second rule? (My kids live by the whatever-second rule. If they drop a cracker on the ground, they’re probably going to dust it off and still eat it. No snack is ever wasted in this family.) And if we’re out in the world, hiking or exploring or getting dirty, I’m not worried the whole time about getting them clean.
The truth is, bacteria are everywhere: on us, in us and all around us, explains “Why Dirty is Good” author Dr. Ruebush. She goes on to say that “most of these micro-organisms cause no problem, and many, like the ones that normally live in the digestive tract and produce life-sustaining nutrients, are essential to good health.”
Again, bacteria are essential to good health.
Parents, we don’t need to be afraid of dirt and germs. We don’t need to hose our kids down with hand sanitizer every five minutes. We don’t need to scrub them clean in a bath every night. (Okay, maybe in the summer when their feet are caked in mud and stink to the high heavens, or once they’re full-on hormonal teenagers, but other than that, probably not necessary.)
We don’t need to freak out every time our babies and toddlers put something in their mouth that hasn’t been sanitized in the last hour. In fact, according to these experts, we don’t even need to freak out if it was an apple slice that had fallen in the mud. More than likely, rather than falling ill to some dirt-laden disease, your kid is actually fighting off germs better now, after maybe ingesting a tiny bit of worm poop.
In the end, the article suggests that parents simply let their kids run in bare feet and play in the dirt. Because it’s actually truly good for them. It may not be good for your kitchen floor, or the dress they wore to church, or their brand-new pair of light-up Star Wars sneakers. But their immune system and overall health?
Dirt and worms for the win.