Let Your Kids Play In The Dirt

Go Ahead. Let your kid play in the Dirt

Why the Anti-Bacterial Everything Movement May Be Doing You Kids More Harm Than Good…

I must admit: for years I’d had a sort of visceral reaction to mud, dirt and bacteria. The idea of getting muddy made my face do – what my kids call – an “Ewww” look.  And becoming a mother seemed to have made it worse.

I was the parent who carried wipes and anti-bacterial hand sanitizer bottles everywhere and tried to structure my kid’s play in a “clean” area if I could.

It didn’t help that my children had the propensity of putting their hands in their month pretty much ALL the time, so having them play in the grass or dirt made me uncomfortable to say the least.  I’d find myself uttering the phrase “GET THAT OUT OF YOUR MOUTH!” more times than I care to remember.

I suppose I could blame it on the barrage of ads geared towards Moms like me which stressed  what I like to call “hypercleanliness”.  You’ve seen them – the commercials with close-ups of nasty looking green bacteria and viruses cells and some some magic scrub that wisks them away like magic!  Or maybe it was the Antibiotics-everything mentality I had inherited where I considered bacteria – any bacteria – as something to be avoided.  Whatever the reason, I equated bacteria, viruses and sickness to DIRT.

I know alot of other women, friends that still feel this way, but is playing outside in the yard (or dirt) really so bad for our kids?  In a world where the anti-bacterial movement is marching forward, let’s take a look at why dirt can actually be good for kids.

The body doesn’t mind a little dirt

Jane Brody, the Personal Health Columnist from The New York Times, states that as humans, we are predispositioned in an evolutionary way to gain benefits in the body from being around dirt. Ever scold your baby for putting dirty hands in his or her mouth? Brody says that according to her “hygiene hypothesis”, the volumes of viruses, bacteria, and worms that are in the soil actually help the immune system develop in a healthy manner. [1]

In addition, Professor Graham Rook of the Centre for Clinical Microbiology in London, told U.S. News that the organisms that we find in dirt have been around since the beginning of time. He feels that it is these organisms that help the immune system from becoming trigger-happy, as he calls it.[2] So for those that keep their kids from dirt may be depriving them of some good old-fashioned bugs that could indeed keep their immune system performing nicely.

Natural bacterium found in dirt is good for the brain

Dorothy Matthews, researcher at Sage College in New York, discovered that the bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae found in dirt can actually be good for the brain. She reported to Mother Nature Network that M. vaccae was found to accelerate learning, stimulate neuron growth, and boost serotonin levels. [3] In a study using rats as subjects, she found that the rats that were fed M. vaccae experienced less anxiety and completed a maze twice as fast as other rats who were fed nothing.

It’s interesting to note that some scientists are using this data to do their own experimenting for depression by injecting M. vaccae into patients. It is believed that the bacteria acts much like the drug Prozac, boosting serotonin in the brain.

Dirt is beneficial for the skin

We’ve all heard of mud-masks to improve skin, but why is that?  According to a University of California study, there is a certain bacteria in dirt that is great for combatting combating inflammation. [4] Staphylococci is bacteria that can calm down overactive immune system responses, and is found in dirt.

Dirt helps prevent asthma and allergies

A study published by Harvard Medical School indicates that kids that are exposed to germ environments are exposed to microbes that can help reduce the number of inflamed immune cells in the lungs and colon, which decreases their chances of developing asthma and allergies. [5] The study used rats and found that those exposed to the microbes in a germ-filled environment had less inflammation in their lungs and colon.

Dirt gets kids outside, helping them immensely

There are many kids these days who are suffering from “Nature Deficit Disorder”, as they spend a great deal of time indoors. Kids spend loads of time on their computers, video games, watching television, and playing on their cell phones, but rarely get out into nature. A study done by the University of Michigan discovered that test subjects performed 20% better when it came to memory after they spent one hour improved by 20 percent  out in nature. [6]

Kids are growing up in a super-clean environment, with antibacterial soap, antibacterial cleaning wipes, spray, and other cleaning products. Their environments are certainly sterile and germ-free, but at the same time children are experiencing more allergy, autoimmune, and gut related disorders.

Antibacterial properties prevent gut bacteria from thriving

The reason for this, according to research, is that the antibacterial properties of the products prevents healthy gut bacteria from thriving in the digestive system. Probiotics and supplements are wonderful, but they don’t give the Soil-Based Organisms (SBOs) that really give the gut the most benefit.

According to Mary Ruebush in her book, Why Dirt is Good, children putting dirty things in their mouths helps their immune system out. She writes, “Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.”[7]

Various studies show that children that grow up on a farm or grow up with a dog experience less allergies. This is an important finding and indicates that some good old-fashioned dirt, or the organisms found in the dirt, benefit the immune system. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reported in a study that Amish children who grew up on a farm experienced much less allergies than children who did not. In fact, in northern Indiana, Amish populations experienced 5.2 percent less allergies than non-farm populations.[8]

Does this mean that we ought to let our children play in contaminated water or dirt all the time? No, but letting them be kids that play outside and sometimes get dirty exposes them to various organisms that are good for them.

Additionally, intestinal worms play a part in immune system development as well. In fact, Dr. David Elliot from the University of Iowa reports that intestinal worms are big players when it comes to keeping the immune system regulated to respond in a positive and healthy manner.

Do your kids get enough dirt exposure?

The easiest way to encourage kids to get the dirt exposure they need is to get them outside playing. Now you’re not going to encourage them to eat dirt. Be sensible when it comes to what they’re doing outside. For example, you don’t need to let them play in the mud and feces of the farm animals, but certainly let them do what they do naturally in the back yard- romp around and play. It’s not that they have to eat dirt or even put dirty things in their mouths; they simply need to be around it, playing and just hanging out among nature.

Barefoot and fancy free

Let the children play outside barefoot once in a while, as long as the area is not dangerous with broken glass or other things that may harm their feet. Feel free to let your toddler walk in the grass barefoot with you. Some parents who are aware of the health benefits of dirt actually let their babies crawl around in a small area of organic dirt regularly so they can be exposed to the good bacteria. They do get dirty, but that’s the point.

You can put some organic dirt in a baby pool or simply fill up a big pot and let them dig around in that pot and play. If you have a garden, you can let older children help you dig, plant, and weed. Of course, it’s alright to have children wash their hands when they come in the house, and especially before they eat.

Supplement with high quality probiotics

In addition to time allowed for dirty play, as a family eat foods that are rich in probiotics and drink kefir, which has beneficial probiotics. Introduce your children to sauerkraut, kombucha, and additional fermented foods. These will also help your children get the beneficial bacterial they need for optimal gut health.

Dirt and Babies

Babies certainly need to be around dirt for the health benefits of the organisms found in it. Health professionals assert that babies need iron to thrive, yet breast milk lacks iron. Yes, breast milk does have wonderful health benefits. The lack of iron in breast milk actually helps babies because E.coli thrives with iron.

By the time babies are 6 months old, their need for iron increases. Good news is that dirt is a good source of iron, so as babies are crawling around on the ground, they are being exposed to adequate amounts of iron to help them thrive.[9]

The research is in on the topic of health benefits of dirt, asking parents to let their kids play in the dirt and essentially spend more time outdoors than indoors. After all, not all bacteria is bad and some bacteria is very helpful to the immune system. So this week, make a commitment to getting outside with your children and have a mud pie making contest, get in the garden, or simply run and play in the yard. Enjoy the dirt!


[1] Babies Know:  A Little Dirt is Good for You ; http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/27/health/27brod.html

[2] A Little Dirt May Be a Good Thing ; http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/articles/2011/09/09/a-little-dirt-may-be-a-good-thing

[3] Breathing soil bacteria makes you smarter ; http://www.mnn.com/health/fitness-well-being/stories/breathing-soil-bacteria-makes-you-smarter

[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/6630394/Children-should-be-allowed-to-play-in-the-dirt-new-research-suggests.html

[5] Children should be allowed to play in the dirt, new research suggests ; http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/321783#ixzz1qFKPoW1p

[6] Going outside—even in the cold—improves memory, attention ; http://ns.umich.edu/new/releases/6892

[7] Why Dirt Is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends ; https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1427798044/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1427798044&linkCode=as2&tag=wellnessmama-20

[8] Amish children living in northern Indiana have a very low prevalence of allergic sensitization ; http://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749%2812%2900519-2/fulltext

[9] Measurement of iron absorption from meals contaminated with iron. ; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Measurement+of+iron+absorption+from+meals+contaminated+with+iron

Megan Word

Green Gal Guru

A self-described "Green Gal", Megan is a full-time mommy and passionate blogger in the natural health and green living space. She has been actively preaching to friends and family for years about simple ways to live free of synthetic chemicals, and in harmony with our one and only planet earth.

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