It is spring in California (although, truth be told, this mid-westerner never really notices much of a winter here). The Easter Bunny brought my son sand toys. Yesterday we spent the afternoon outside in the park. With a bucket, a shovel, and a few shapes, a new world opened up. Castles were built. Rivers were dug. Cakes were baked and then eaten. Don’t worry, “just pretending” he told me. Fish and turtles and stars appeared and then disappeared. All the while, we were serenaded by nearby birds. The sun shone down on us and there was a gentle breeze. For a while our dear little neighbor girl joined in, but for the most part it was just us. The best few hours I’ve had in a while.
And we got Dirty. That’s right, with a capitol D. Covered, head to toe in sand. Sand all over our pants and filling our shoes. Sand between our toes. Sand stuck to our sunscreen. I can’t remember the last time I was this dirty. It was glorious.
Perhaps some of my friends who are parents have wondered about my seeming lack of concern about dirt. Yes, I’m a pediatrician; but, I’m also a firm believer in the five second rule, and have even been known to simply wipe off a pacifier that has dropped and pluck it back in. Not that I’m necessarily recommending such a laissez faire attitude, but I do think a little bit of dirt can be a very good thing.
The first argument suggesting that digging in the dirt may be healthy is the hygiene hypothesis. This theory, bandied about for a number of years now, states that as our environment gets cleaner and cleaner, the way in which our immune system interacts with the environment changes. Because the immune system isn’t challenged in the same way, it may not develop in the same way. The theory suggests that kids who have far fewer exposures to microbes may have higher risk of some diseases, such as asthma and eczema. Of course, this is still a “theory”, and we must approach it with a balanced perspective. As Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researcher Kathleen Barnes states,
“the notion of the epidemiological transition is that we’ve gone from a situation in our distant past, where we’re exposed to lots of microbes—but we also, to be frank, died from a lot of these diseases; so, it’s not to romanticize our past, certainly these microbes were able to kill us [. . .] But the idea is that some balance protects you.”
So, while we certainly must appreciate safe drinking water and the important role that antibiotics often play in maintaining health, it may not be so bad if we forget our anti-bacterial wipes at home once in a while.
One form of digging in the dirt, gardening, has additional benefits of helping kids learn to appreciate where food comes from and how it grows. And, it leaves you with colorful, healthy food to share later on. In addition, gardeners have long known that their hobby can help with stress relief and improve mood. New studies suggest there may be a biological basis for this phenomenon. Even very young children can start helping out in the garden- digging, planting seeds, watering. Many families don’t have space for a garden. Think about looking for a community garden to join. Even a small window-box or a few potted plants can provide a lot of learning and joy.
There’s also been a lot written recently about the importance of unstructured playtime for kids. Time to explore and create. Time away from flashcards and drills. This appears to be especially true for very young children. What better medium for this time than a little sand and water. Worlds can be created and then washed away. With the same tools, a castle and moat may form one day and a tea party the next.
So, next time you see a tantrum coming on. . . head outside to the park or garden with your little one and start digging. There’s a good chance you’ll both be feeling better in no time.