I let my kids play in dirt. I let them play in sand, and water, and mud. They run around barefoot and make imaginary foods out of dirt and sticks and rocks. Soup is always popular, flecked with little shredded blades of grass. Firm soil can be formed into meatballs, served on a plate of grass for noodles. Occasionally, I am served little dark cups of espresso.
I bought them toy food to use in their toy kitchen, but the toys sat by unused in favor of these natural materials. At the end of the day, they are filthy and sometimes wet. This makes me feel like a great mom. The way I figure it, if they don’t need a bath at the end of the day, I didn’t do my job.
I know that not everyone feels like this. I’m sure there are moms out there right now reading this critically, thinking that we’re all going to get hook worms, or some other nasty thing from all this unsanitary play. They might be right. Maybe because I grew up on a farm, I feel like the dirty, outdoor play is wholesome. Maybe I have a higher tolerance for this. But, I also have some crazy, unsubstantiated theories on why this play is beneficial.
(Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor and if you decide to quote me on my theories, people may make fun of you.)
Firstly, have you ever noticed how all children eat dirt? You would think that the taste would deter them, but it doesn’t. This is especially surprising when a child who is a picky eater at the table will happily stick a fistful of sand in their mouth at the beach. Then they go back for more! It’s like crunchy, fish flavored applesauce and they just can’t get enough! As far as I know from my casual observations, children everywhere do this and probably have been doing it all throughout human history. What if there is some sort of reason for this, like populating the gut bacteria?
If you haven’t heard about fecal transplant yet, go look it up. It’s fascinating. The basic idea is that transplanting poop from a person with healthy gut bacteria into a person without the beneficial bacteria, some intestinal diseases can be cured. A kid eating dirt could essentially do the same thing, populating their internal biome. Also, researchers have found that merely importing the healthy foods from groups that are healthy or live longer doesn’t necessarily work. For example, eating seaweed and sushi may be very healthy, but perhaps just eating those foods while not living in Okinawa don’t have a big impact because the gut biome is not populated for those foods. Some Canadian First Nations people live almost exclusively on meat and seal fat. Again, that diet could not be imported in isolation with healthy benefits. However, if you were a baby in Okinawa, ate the local dirt with the place specific bacteria, the diet would match your internal biome. Maybe when people move to new geographic areas, they should incorporate some of the local dirt into their diet to adapt, just as we have to reset out internal clocks to match the local time.
As far as I know, science hasn’t explored this idea. While we’re at it, for all we know, eating boogers is the cure for cancer or some other modern ailment. In the process of civilizing our children, we treat these behaviors as gross and taboo, but does any kind of science back it up? I don’t know.
But back to the topic of merely playing in the dirt, and not eating it. My children love to collect nature items, and we constantly have a little box or shelf for their treasures. Sticks, rocks, beautiful or unique leaves, and of course dandelions are collected, categorized and admired. This is the very basis of science. Collection, classification, and observation are all happening in a very real, and organic way. Items are compared and contrasted. They are observed through the 5 senses. This kind of experiential science is missing in many classrooms in favor or theory or worksheets. Someday my children will learn about astronomy, but first they need to spend their time looking at the stars.
As for going barefoot, there have been theories about the connecting to the earth’s natural magnetism, and barefoot running shoes to prevent injury, and probably other stuff that has also been debunked. I just like being barefoot and I know my kids do, too. They kick off their shoes at every opportunity. Whether or not it has health benefits, I couldn’t say. I will say that it increases the tactile experience of playing, and playing in the dirt is what this post was all about. So, if people look at you funny for letting your kids get dirty and explore the world, go ahead and quote my armchair quackery to them. Make up a statistic to support your claim. 80% of American’s won’t be able to tell the difference.