get ’em dirty

When my oldest son was in preschool, I always measured the quality of the day by the amount of dirt he had on him. This, for example, was a very good day…

dirty ashton

While I am not a particularly dirty person (my type A personality does not naturally allow it), I do understand the value of dirt for a child… I intentionally go outside my clean comfort zone to encourage our kids to get dirty. Sometimes I get strange looks at the park for the magnitude of dirtiness I allow or for letting my youngest put nature in his mouth.

But dirt is packed with magnificent organisms including powerful bacteria, viruses and yes (yuck!) even worms that stimulate healthy immune systems. Children who play in dirt are less likely to get asthma or allergies along with other autoimmune disorders. This is especially true in young children where it will have a lifelong lasting impact.

“When a child puts things in his mouth he is allowing his immune response to explore his environment,” Mary Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, wrote in her new book, “Why Dirt Is Good” (Kaplan). “Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses, it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.” I am quite certain that my toddler will have the immune system of a superhero with the amount of sand, dirt and nature he has feasted on in his short eighteen months here on earth. 

Ashton 030

Not only can dirt and mud play be terrifically beneficial for health, it also helps to build motor skills, stimulate senses, and satiate inquisitive minds. Most importantly, though, it’s FUN. Studies that show that certain friendly bacteria found in dirt can actually increase serotonin in the brain. We knew dirt was fun but who knew it could literally make you happier.

It is my belief that no childhood should be complete without barefoot summers, puddle stomping, dirty little fingers and mud squishing between our toes. It makes me very happy to know that my husband is completely aligned with me on this matter. Recently, here is how our toddler returned after going for a “walk” with daddy…

soredn dirty

At a recent soccer game, daddy picked up our older son and threw him into a large puddle where he proceeded to splash and play. Some parents laughed and others cringed.

ashton puddle


Look at that smile. Smiles like that should make even the strictest germaphobic at least a tiny bit interested in dirt. If you aren’t avoiding dirt because of germs, perhaps your barrier has to do with the clean up and hassle factor. If we create systems and processes in our home to support dirty play, our house doesn’t actually have to be dirty. Put a bucket by the door for kids to empty pockets. Set aside specific clothes and towels for play. Set a laundry basket inside your door and have kids strip down on the rug so you can put the clothes directly into the washer. Encourage them to be responsible for cleaning up after themselves, you will be amazed to see their self-esteem rise when they do it themselves. Wear play clothes yourself on those days so that you don’t have to worry about your outfit getting ruined.

The great thing about dirt is that it needs no planning. Send the kids outside, or better yet join them out there. Garden with your kids. Designate a digging spot in your yard just for them. Get a sandbox. Consider a visit to local parks with wooded trails for exploring or streams for wading. Start the sprinkler. Go camping. Buy a bucket, a shovel and a spray bottle for hours of entertainment.

To be ready for play at any time, consider putting a small laundry basket or utility tote in your trunk complete with a garbage bag, wipes, rain boots play clothes, a change of clothes, sunscreen and sand toys. It makes life much easier to know its always there should you end up in a situation where there is an opportunity for dirty play.

Remember, a dirty kid is a happy kid. Happy kids make for happy families.

What’s your take on dirt? 


10 Comments on “get ’em dirty
  1. My take on dirt is this… when I see it happening, I stop it. But with 2 boys you know I didn’t see everything at the friend’s house and grandmom’s …. so it was better that I didn’t know. My mom, the nurse, never would agree that eating dirt is a good thing. There have been numerous warnings and illnesses from children eating sand from a sandbox and they warn against it such as this article:

    • Carolyn, thank you for sharing your perspective on this topic. It’s fascinating to see such varying onions from the healthcare and broader industry as well as from other parents.

  2. I agree! Fully! As a child I was not big on dirt. Even when I had my baby, that didn’t change. But when she was about 1 year old, I received the best advice ever: “IT’S JUST DIRT AND WILL ALL COME OFF IN THE BATH”. From then on, we REALLY had fun. Now both my girls are big on sand, flour, puddles… you name it!

    #gingerbreadmum (from UBC!) stopped by to say hi!

  3. I encourage kids to play in the dirt! Funny, even I gravitate toward the dirt when I am stressed out. Nature therapy.

  4. I had to overcome my resistance to anything messy when I became a mom, but it wasn’t all that hard when I saw how happy it makes them to get good and dirty! Great suggestions on how to overcome the hurdles that keep us from allowing kids to get messy. Have you seen any photos of sensory paths (I think they’re more popular in Europe)? One part of the experience is often walking barefoot through mud … something that would probably do us good at any age!

  5. Angie, I could not agree more about the happiness level of dirtiness for kids. I have not heard of the sensory paths-excited to check them out. Thanks for sharing!

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