Our son LOVES being outside. He runs around in the backyard, looking for a dirt pile or a mud puddle to play with his monster trucks. Yes, he gets messy, but the benefits far outweigh the laundry pile.
The Benefits of Dirt
Dirt gets a bad reputation. However, there is a difference between being dirty and being unhygienic. Research has found that playing in dirt is actually helpful to building a child’s overall well-being.
For instance, the bacteria M. vacae, found in soil rich in moist organic matter, triggers the release of serotonin in the brain, improving mood, immunity, and learning. Just like M. vacae, microbes found in the earth and air help boost the immune system, especially in babies and young children.
The “hygiene hypothesis” is a theory that believes early exposure to germs reduces the susceptibility to diseases like asthma, allergies, and autoimmune conditions. Research has found that farm-raised children who are outside and exposed to the natural elements, including dirt, have less allergies and autoimmune problems compared to their urban counterparts who spent most of their time indoors. Studies have also discovered that microbes in dirt, specifically clay, aid in reducing pain and inflammation after an injury.
Another interesting perspective about dirt comes from the idea of grounding. You ever have that one “hippie” friend that recommends to be “one with the earth” by walking barefoot outside on the grass or getting your hands in the soil when anxious or stressed? Well, they might not be wrong.
Grounding (or Earthing) is when you are in direct and uninterrupted contact with the earth. The thought is that the earth has a negative charge while our bodies build up a positive charge which can lead to health issues over time. By being in direct contact with the earth, our bodies can return to a neutral state. Grounding is also a recommended treatment for jet lag. Although studies regarding its benefits are small or poorly conducted, it doesn’t hurt to give it a try.
The same can be said for hiking or “forest-bathing”. Just walking in the forest has been proven to be reenergizing and balancing, both physically and mentally.
We know that this blog post isn’t going to make you roll your toddler into a mud pit or sign up for a 10-mile family hike. The good news is you definitely don’t have to go that far. Gardening is a great way for your child to reap the benefits of dirt and then some:
- It Sparks Curiosity – Children are naturally curious, and gardening with your child will allow them to ask many questions. It’s a great introduction into science and plant biology.
- The Beginning of STEM – Cause and effect, problem solving, measurements, and experimentation are right at your child’s fingertips. They learn which plants need more sun, which need little water, and how different plants grow in different soil, etc.
- Sensory Experience – Gardening engages all the senses. They can smell nature as they plant flowers or herbs, hear the sounds of birds or the wind moving the trees, touch the dirt and all its textures (clumpy/smooth, wet/dry) and taste the fruits and vegetables once they are ready to be picked. Plus, the “heavy work” involved when digging dirt and planting provides proprioceptive input (knowing where your body is in relation to your surroundings), promoting self-regulation and focus.
- Promotes Developmental Motor Skills – Speaking of “heavy work,” these gross motor activities build strength and stability. Fine motor skills are also involved when they place seeds in the soil, water the plants, or trim stems, facilitating coordination and precision.
- Promotes Patience – Gardening does not offer instant gratification. Kids must learn to wait to see the literal fruits of their labor. While they wait, ask them about small changes in their plants as they grow. For a flower, your child might see a bud and then two days later, it’s in full bloom.
- Promotes Healthy Eating Habits – Children are more likely to eat something they helped with. In this case, it would be something they helped grow. Our son helped with planting strawberries last year and as each berry ripened, he couldn’t wait to try one. The same went for green beans, broccoli, and cauliflower this past season.
- Group Effort – Gardening can be a team builder and it shows your child that they have a role and responsibility to these living organisms and to the family. For us, gardening is a family event. We pick the plants, plan where they go, and once we’re ready to plant them, everyone has a job to do. A is responsible for helping dig holes, watering the plants once they are planted, and helping pick the fruits and veggies once they are ready.
- Encourages Social Responsibility – As children learn how to care for the plants in the garden, they will have a better grasp of factors that affect their care, like pollution, recycling, or pesticides. This allows them to be more eco-conscious and engaged in how their actions influence our planet.
What if they don’t like getting dirty?
We get it. Some people are not fond of getting messy and some kids genuinely don’t like getting dirty. As an individual who is tactile defensive, dirt is not something I like to immerse myself in. But there are ways to help:
- Always have water around. If your child gets too dirty for their liking, tell them they can always rinse off with the hose or water bucket nearby.
- Let them use tools. A shovel, gardening gloves, a pail, anything that can put a bit of distance between them and the dirt. As they get used to the substance, it won’t feel as unpredictable or overwhelming to them as before.
- Give them a role. Digging in the dirt or planting doesn’t have to be their only job. Give them the task of handing the plant to you or keeping all the starter plants together in a play wagon. They can also distribute seed, water the plants with a watering can or spray bottle, or older kids can help trim or prune bushes/shrubs.
What if we don’t have a place to garden?
There are other ways to garden if you don’t have a backyard or community space. You can try container gardening on your deck/porch or keep kitchen herbs by the windowsill. Succulent gardens are also a good alternative and are very easy to care for indoors.
Moral of the story: Let your child get dirty. When you expose them to nature and all of its sensory inputs, they more they (and their bodies) learn and adapt to the large and small worlds around them.
“Earthing & Grounding: Legit or Hype? (How to & When Not To)“, Katie Wells. Wellness Mama, July 24, 2017.
“Dirt Is Good’: Why Kids Need Exposure To Germs“, Lulu Garcia-Navarro. NPR Weekend Edition, July 16, 2017.
“Depressed? Go Play in the Dirt“, Ker Than. Live Science, April 11, 2007.
“Dirt is NOT Dirty – How Playing in the Dirt Benefits the Immune System“.
Health Freedom Idaho, December 24, 2016.
“10 Benefits of Gardening with Kids“, Jessica Lopa. Mommy University, May 4, 2015.
“Got A Wound? Science Says Rub Some Dirt In It“, Clay Dillow. Popular Science, May 22, 2013.