In Defense of Dirt: Why Kids Need Mud

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Let Them Get Dirty – Love, Science

June 29th was International Mud Day. That’s right! An entire day set aside to encourage children all over the world trudge through muck and make mud pies. Why, one might wonder, do we need such a thing? To correct a travesty: A recent study found that an entire generation is missing out on dirty play because their parents are too busy to deal with the mess.

[em]Confession: I’m totally guilty. A few weeks ago I decided I was going to put my trepidations aside and let my kids get messy. I gave them buckets, shovels, and the false impression that I was a-okay with the whole thing. A few minutes later, Little Dude ran to the back screen to announce he’d made something for me. The photos speak for themselves:[/em]

MuddyFun1MuddyFun

Oh. Boy.

I snapped a photo of his artwork and invited the boys in for a distraction. I mean movie. Lego Emmet took over while I frantically scrubbed the house. Baby steps.

Things we’ve established:  Mud is messy. Today’s kids rarely play in the mud.

What’s the big deal?

Science says we’re blowing it. Here’s why.

5 Scientific Reasons to Let Kids Play Dirty

 Mud pies aren’t just a touchstone for childhood nostalgia. They can make your kids healthier and happier, but that’s not the half of here. Here are a few science-backed reasons why you should let your kids play in the dirt.

Mighty Microbes: Muck makes kids healthier

I’ll be candid: I love science. I’m the kind of person who will dive right in to high-quality research with an open mind, trying to limit my own bias or, in this case, yucky factor. But I have my limits, people, and giving my kids the okay to actually eat their mud pies does not fall within them. Those with dogs smell what I’m stepping in (har, har, har). Nonetheless, there are plenty of excellent studies that suggest letting kids get dirty boosts their immune systems. As the creatively titled TIME article Why You Should Let Kids Eat Dirt points out, kids exposed to dirt, pet hair and even roach dander (yum) build antibodies that tend result in fewer allergies and more robust immune systems.

The Bright Side: Dirt makes kids happier

Want happier, less anxious kids? It may be time to flood the backyard. The National Wildlife Foundation reports that several studies–including one that tracked more than 2 million children–suggest playing in mud, climbing trees, and generally going a little wild outdoors increases kids’ serotonin levels. In other words, they tend to be happier, less anxious, and less stressed out. This is true for adults, too, by the way.

Soil Smarts: Case of the brain-boosting bacterium

A 2010 study presented at the General Meeting of American Society of Microbiology suggested that exposure to dirt’s mighty microbes may improve learning behaviors, and not just because it gets kids outside. According to the report, a particular soil bacterium called M. vaccae is thought to be the primary brain booster. For perspective: Mice who were fed live M. vaccae navigated researchers’ mazes twice as quickly and kept their cool under pressure. Note: It is likely no surprise to learn that M. vaccae deserves some of the credit for dirt’s antidepressive qualities.

The Outside Scoop: Mud = nature

Perhaps one of dirt’s best qualities is that it’s outside… mostly. That means kids playing in the mud are (hopefully) outside, too. The fact that getting out in nature is good for us is no long held secret, but we have reached a stage in our collective evolution when doctors actually prescribe hikes and park days. According to a report from Virginia Tech University, getting kids into green (or muddy) spaces encourages:

  • Social development
  • Fine and gross motor skills
  • Values and a sense of moral identity
  • Lorax-like environmentalism
  • Improvement in attention and other executive functions
  • Healthier bodies

The Family Bonus: Mud makes memories

In his book, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art & Science of Falling In Love With Nature, Dr. Scott Sampson (of Dinosaur Train fame) describes a boot full of pollywogs as one of his most cherished, most important memories. Sampson certainly celebrates the squirmy sensation that comes with lugging freaking tadpoles in your footwear, but he also reflects on how lucky he was to have a mother let him. The moral of this story: Spending time with your kids outside, letting them get filthy, strengthens your family bond. It creates stories, maybe even traditions, to be shared for decades. What could be better than that?

Aimee Hosler Education Journalist
Aimee
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Aimee Hosler has a snazzy husband, two boys, a dog, and official pedagogy-nerd status. She doubles as a freelance journalist specializing K-12 and higher education in general, and PBL, maker education and creative thinking specifically. Her articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including USA Today, TeachThought, Education World, The Global Digital Citizen Foundation, Yahoo! News, Teacher Portal and more. She lives in Virginia.


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